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All the world’s a stage

Keith Rawlings recalls the early days of the Brownsea Island Open Air Theatre

In 1964, some members of the Bournemouth Little Theatre Club thought it would be a good idea to find a way to celebrate the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth. Edna Clarke, Joyce Caton, Gilbert Clayton and Poole Councillor, Geoffrey Pharaoh Adams, as Chairman, were the sub-committee set up to make it happen. Their great difficulty was deciding where to put on one of Shakespeare’s plays which would be sufficiently special. The Palace Court Theatre would be too ordinary and Meyrick Park – it was a busy through-road in those days – would be too noisy .

Rudimentary lighting and staging for the inaugural performance of the Brownsea Open Air Theatre

Rudimentary lighting and staging for the inaugural performance of the Brownsea Open Air Theatre

Under the ownership of reclusive Mrs Christie, Brownsea Island became a place of mystery – it was a forbidden territory – but, after she died in 1961, her grandson passed the island to the Treasury in lieu of death duties and they in turn passed it to The National Trust. Locals were becoming intrigued with it, visits were organised to wander round the wild place, which was being brought under control. Then someone at the Little Theatre Club quoted from The Tempest:

‘This island’s mine by Sycorax my mother
which thou takest from me.’

With one line, the club’s conundrum had been resolved. Brownsea Island would be the venue and The Tempest had to be the play. Contacts were made with the National Trust and boat companies were contacted to organise shipping hundreds to and from the island. Simple things became complicated; I remember the difficulty in finding a sufficient number of seats capable of withstanding the elements in the case of a week’s continuous rain.

Rehearsals began initially at the club and then in people’s gardens; I remember that we offered ours, which was certainly large enough, but the offer was rejected as it was over-looked by too many houses. This was a pity as we would have had no travelling and no baby-sitting searches. My wife, Eileen, was playing Ariel, and I was Caliban; I had the immortal ‘This island’s mine’ line.

Actors from Brownsea Open Air Theatre pictured in August 1964 in the 1964 production of The Tempest

Actors from Brownsea Open Air Theatre pictured in August 1964 in the 1964 production of The Tempest

The whole venture was automatically national news. The performance on an island was the star. Richard Blomfield and Warren Davies, the publicity men, had no difficulty in getting the national press interested. The BBC and ITV took a film of the dress rehearsal on the island and, as it rained nearly all the time, the producer from the BBC said to us, ‘I wish you luck. You’ll need it.’ But it was fine for the rest of the week and the screeching of the peacocks at inappropriate times, then as now, caused the production to be memorable! Tickets were being sold on the black market at four times cost price and The Daily Mail reported, under the headline ‘Best Beware They Sting’, that pint bottles of insect repellent would be on sale during the performances. They did not, however, mention that Rentokil was hired to produce a smoke before the performance and that the mosquitoes, pursued by a fog, made their exit before the play started.

I was naughty at one performance. I was determined to get a reaction from the audience on the line that gave us the reason for choosing The Tempest; Peter Benfield (Trinculo) and John Headford (Stephano) had both dared me. After ‘This island’s mine’, I paused, threw my arms into the air and leered at the audience … and got a round of applause. For the actors, it was ‘our island’ every summer thereafter.

After our first visit to the island there was a discussion about where we should put the ‘stage’ and where the audience should sit. One section of us maintained the stage should be on the slope, to the right of where the seating is now. The older members of the cast argued that the chairs would fall over because of the slope. The other idea was to put the stage where it is now, but the front of house management was warned that those sitting in the third row and behind would not be able to see the actors, only the person sitting in front of them, because there was no rake. The second position won the popular vote. During the interval at the first performance, the chairs had been spread out by the audience, to the extremities of the field, to avoid the large man sitting in front of them.

Members of the cast prepare for a performance in 1971

Members of the cast prepare for a performance in 1971

The cow shed used for dressing rooms smelt of its previous occupants, in spite of disinfectant and countless bottles of cheap scent splashed all over the place. Large pieces of sacking were hung to obscure views of the opposite sex, but they were never very efficient. Toilets were primitive, for cast and audience alike. Some ladies, when they glimpsed behind the sacking and saw the crudely-dug trenches, refused to use them.

There were also more theatrical issues to contend with. It was the first time most of us had performed in the open air and with the audience well spread over a field, we all had to speak up. Some of the ladies found this difficult; I remember one in particular refused to do so, until a friend of hers in the audience on the last night told her, ‘Couldn’t hear a word you were saying, dear.’

Members of the audience having their bites tended to with TCP before watching Brownsea Open Air Theatre's production of The Tempest in 1964

Members of the audience having their bites tended to with TCP before watching Brownsea Open Air Theatre's production of The Tempest in 1964

But one curse is still with the island, though today hardly noticeable. Those mosquitoes! In those days they must have been as large as wasps and more deadly. Everyone was warned about them and the smell of insect repellent pervaded the air. A youth, the son of cast members, was equipped with a mask, and he sprayed a deadly smelling insecticide all over the place from a petrol-operated machine. The audience brought their personal supplies of repellant too. although the men were still well –advised to tuck their trousers into their socks to prevent the beasts crawling upwards. Audiences talked about the play, of course, but the main topic of conversation was about those cursed mosquito and how many bites had been inflicted per person. Years later, they still inflict the occasional bite.

Shakespeare was deserted twice, for A Man For All Seasons and The Queen and the Welshman. Why Shakespeare was neglected I’ve never understood. I played Cromwell in For All Seasons and all that I remember about it was that the hat I had to wear was like an upturned bowl with a rim. At one performance it began to rain steadily and, as we carried on bravely, I became conscious of the weight of my hat increasing; it was both absorbing and collecting the rain. Eventually I had to bow low, and a pint of rainwater poured from it to the grass, narrowly avoiding More. The audience tittered and a round of applause burst out. It lifted the spirits of everyone, although it rained non-stop throughout the rest of the play. The cast was soaked; the audience was soaked. Our gorgeous, but heavy, costumes became heavier and heavier. At the curtain, the whole cast applauded the audience and the audience stood to applaud us, and themselves. Paraffin heaters were brought from the mainland and they flared in the cow shed, to dry the costumes, which had been hung up there. But the costumes remained heavy and wet for days and for future performances were clammy.

Brownsea Open Air Theatre pictured in 1965 in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream

Brownsea Open Air Theatre pictured in 1965 in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream

There were no auditions in those early days. I had no memory of being asked to play Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet for the 1969 production until I found this letter in a scrapbook:

MOORHILL HOUSE HOTEL Burley, Nr. Ringwood., Hants BH24 4AG

– 18 November, 1968.

Dear Keith,

Brownsea Open Air Theatre The Production Committee have instructed me to invite you to play the part of MERCUTIO in next year’s production of Romeo and Juliet, to be performed on the 28th and 30th of July, and the 1st, 3rd and 5th August with alternate nights in case of bad weather.

We hope you will say ‘Yes’ and that we will hear from you soon.

Yours, Edna Clarke. Prod. Comm. Secretary

I have no idea too why I refused the offer. Nor do I know why, although the Bournemouth Little Theatre Club started up the Brownsea Open Air Theatre, it ceased to run it.

Of the 41 members of the cast for the next production, 22 have not appeared on Brownsea before and they will pass the torch to others in the future. I only hope they have as much fun as we did. Perhaps the most memorable highlight of those early days was the cast at the quay, mingling with the audience as they queued for the last boat back to the mainland, all singing our hearts out. I hope they do it again this year. The Brownsea Open Air Theatre has become an event in Dorset’s social calendar and raises funds for the Dorset Wildlife Trust and National Trust. This island is theirs.

• Brownsea Open Air Theatre’s production of Julius Caesar runs from 27 July to 12 August 2011. Full details from or by calling the box office on 01202 251987

• The committee of Brownsea Open Air Theatre (BOAT) is planning a celebration in 2013 to include all members of the cast, crew and special guests involved since 1964. Anyone connected with BOAT is welcome to send their contact details to The archives are also incomplete so if anyone has any memorabilia, photographs or anecdotes, we would like to hear from you. Patrons’ contributions are also very welcome. It is hoped to produce a special 50th Anniversary booklet about BOAT from its inception to the present.


1, 2, 3, 4, 5: Daily Echo/Newsquest Media Group Limited

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