Greenwood Players to Perform Shakespeare in Belvoir Forest

Sci-fi author Ian McDonald tackles the bard's 'sketches, songs, sonnets and soliloquies'

Shakespeare in the Park is a grand old New York tradition. But does Shakespeare in Belvoir Forest have the same ring to it? And will it catch on, with our weather? The Greenwood Players are confident that it will.

‘Not every city has a forest running through it,’ says Ian McDonald, sci-fi author and co-writer with Will Shakespeare on Under the Greenwood Tree. ‘It gave me an idea: Shakespeare as a promenade performance in Belvoir Park? From there it kind of evolved into sketches, songs, sonnets and soliloquies about the green wood and the wild wood.’

Created for entry into the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Open Stages Project, Under the Greenwood Tree is a theatrical mash-up, drawing from Shakespeare’s tragedies, romances and comedies. The scenes are thematically linked by the addition of a character written by McDonald. ‘Vaguely linked!’ the writer interrupts. ‘I might have another pass at the script.’

The performance takes place in and around the Belvoir Ancient Oaks, a grove of trees that are among the oldest in Ireland, some of them actually dating from Shakespeare’s time. More or less, give or take ten years. And, after all, what is that in the life of an oak?

The scale of the project is, as the Greenwood Players would be the first to admit, daunting. The Players aren’t just setting up a stage in Belvoir, they are moving between multiple sites in the woods. Enid Crowe, who serves as producer, actress and musician in the play, dealt with the ‘red tape’ that is part and parcel of working with the Forest Service: health and safety and insurance.

‘The file was this thick,’ Crowe sighs, pinching finger and thumb together around a block of imaginary paper. ‘I had to go and renew my first aid qualification as well.’

Despite the paperwork, however, the Players are eager to point out that the Forest Service, in particular the Lagan Valley Regional Park, were very helpful with the production. ‘We couldn’t ask for better help from them,’ Director, Adrian Cooke says. ‘They’ve been really jazzed about the project since we first approached them.’

Crowe smiles and adds, ‘They just needed assurances that the group weren’t going to do anything like cut down 100 year old oaks.’

The Forest Service isn’t the only organization the Players have to thank. They are also partners with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Lyric Theatre (through Open Stages), as well as Belvoir Players, who are lending them the use of their studio for the first part of the play, and Castlereagh Arts who gave them a grant. ‘A seeding grant,’ McDonald says. ‘Appropriately enough.’

Another challenge that Crowe shouldered was the research and creation of the music that will accompany the production. The songs that originally accompanied Shakespeare’s players were popular folk songs of the day, the sort of familiar ditties that everyone could sing along to. ‘The problem is that since everyone knew them,’ Crowe explains, ‘no one saw fit to write them down.’

It has taken extensive research on Crowe’s part to recreate the original music, which will also be played on instruments that would have been traditional to the Shakespearean era. And all that before we get to the ‘sort of vaguely competitive’ aspect of the production.

There are six other production companies in Northern Ireland, Ireland and the Isle of Man taking part in the Open Stages Project. At least two of them are also producing a site specific production of one of Shakespeare’s plays. ‘Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,’ McDonald notes archly.

In addition, each company will be able to stage their play at the the Lyric Theatre. However, out of the six companies taking part, only one gets to perform during World Shakespeare Day in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2011 as part of the Cultural Olympiad.

With Under the Greenwood Tree going from proposal to full-scale initial production in under six months, the Players are the first in the region to stage their play. There are limited spaces available for the performance and it is first come, first served. The audience are advised to come dressed for weather and walking.

‘Mostly on paths though,’ McDonald says cheeringly. ‘There’s no climbing or swimming. Don't bring your dog though.’

Under the Greenwood Tree will be performed in Belvoir Forest from August 26 – 28. Tickets can be booked at Under The Greenwood Tree.