An unforgettable night awaits at open-air theatre Tolethorpe Hall

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ASummer’s evening spent at Tolethorpe is always an unforgettable experience but this year, it’s even more special as the company celebrates 40 years of Tolethorpe and 400 years of Shakespeare.

Every year, Stamford Shakespeare Company puts on three plays at the open-air theatre – two by the iconic playwright and one non-Shakespeare play, running on alternate weeks.

This year’s choices are Macbeth, The Tempest and The Wind in the Willows. The season began last month and draws to a close on Saturday, August 27.

Aptly, Macbeth, along with The Taming of The Shrew, was the first production during Tolethorpe’s opening season in 1977. Members who recall those days, 40 years ago, describe it as a chance happening – just a wish to carry on performing Shakespeare in the open air and for the enjoyment of local audiences.

The Stamford Shakespeare Company was founded in 1968 and initially produced plays in the garden of Stamford’s historic George Hotel. The initial aim was to raise money for the creation of Stamford Arts Centre, which today sells tickets.

When The George could no longer accommodate the company, the near derelict Tolethorpe Hall was acquired. The company had only £78 in the bank so took out a private loan of £36,000, later repaid, to buy the property and take advantage of the natural amphitheatre.

Since then, the company has gone from strength to strength and the theatre itself has seen many changes. There was a major refit in 1993 when seating capacity was increased from 450 to 600 and a permanent canopy was erected over the auditorium.

So now, no matter what the British weather serves up this summer, the covered auditorium means no play gets cancelled due to the weather – although the actors may get a little damp on the open-air stage set in an idyllic woodland glade! Many of Tolethorpe’s seasoned visitors come prepared with cushions and a blanket so they can keep cosy.

The beautiful gardens, which have been enhanced by BBC gardener Bunny Guinness, overlook classic parkland where every night, for the 12-week season, hundreds of people enjoy a picnic before the show – a real Tolethorpe tradition.

If you would like something more formal than a picnic, there’s the restaurant which serves more than 5,000 meals during the season. There is also a theatre bar for enjoying pre-performance and interval drinks and a spacious orangery where interval tea and coffee is served.

What began as a modest local amateur venture is now a leading regional theatre with a growing national reputation.

This year, to celebrate Tolethorpe’s 40th year, a special gala night was held on Saturday, with Macbeth as the show.

Marketing manager David Fensom said: “We are immensely proud this year to be celebrating an incredible 40 years of performing at Tolethorpe Hall. The company continues to go from strength to strength. We remain eternally grateful to those members who worked tirelessly in the early days to help us achieve what we have today.”

This year’s plays:

The Wind in the Willows (June to Jul) - no longer showing

Alan Bennett’s stage adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s classic novel captures vividly the idyllic world of the riverbank and the distant wild wood where wily weasels lie in wait.

Nautical Ratty, modest Mole and wise old Badger are determined to save the irrepressible Mr Toad from his relentless passion for fast motor cars.

Will the reckless Toad ever change his ways? Where will it all end?

Macbeth (August 1 to 6 and 15 to 20)

Macbeth’s descent from popular and successful war hero to deranged tyrant has all the ingredients demanded by audiences; foul murder, witchcraft, misguided ambition, madness, justice and retribution.

After prophecies given to him by three witches, Macbeth sees the first come true. Goaded by his wife, Macbeth’s unbridled desire to be king leads him to murder the saintly King Duncan. Once he is enthroned he discovers that he has to commit ever more murderous deeds to keep himself in power.

The Tempest (August 8 to 13 and 22 to 27)

Tolethorpe’s beautiful gladed stage is the perfect setting for what was possibly Shakespeare’s last play and gives us a dramatist at the height of his creative and poetic power.

A magical, mystical tale of a remote island, of shipwrecks and a lost kingdom, of spirits and monsters, of true love and revenge, of conspirators and clowns. At its centre is the towering figure of Prospero – a reflection perhaps of Shakespeare himself?

n Visit www stamfordshakespeare.co.uk for more information and online booking, along with ticket price details.