ADVENTURE BEGINS: The cast of a Midsummer Night's Dream in 1989 – where it all began for The Castle Players
ADVENTURE BEGINS: The cast of a Midsummer Night's Dream in 1989 – where it all began for The Castle Players

Teesdale theatre group The Castle Players is marking a major milestone next month. We look back at its history and forward to the organisation’s annual summer spectacular

THE Castle Players is gearing up for its 30th outdoor summer production due to take place in the grounds of The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle.

The first was in 1989, a promenade performance of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, also at The Bowes Museum.

The Players, set up by Helen Brown in 1986, called themselves a community drama group, claimed they’d never do Shakespeare and had one production under their belt, an obscure play called New Broom. Written by a local author, this had performed to a sell-out audience at the Witham Hall.

Ms Brown had some theatre experience, being the administrator of the Darlington-based professional group, Durham Theatre Company where she worked at the time. She was joined by professional theatre designer, Simon Pell, who was also employed by Durham Theatre Company. Despite their combined experience, a cry of disbelief was to be heard – “a newly formed, unknown amateur group doing Shakespeare? In Barnard Castle! Madness!”.

But the small band of players believed in their dream – they had secured the relevant permissions, secured funding, albeit an interest-free bank loan for £6,000, and found some old fixed seating in a Bowes Museum store, which they renovated.

“It should be said that these days those seats would have been condemned,” Mr Pell says. “But after a bit of impromptu welding, they passed the safety check and lasted us quite a few years before we actually had to consign them to the tip.”

Mr Pell, who studied theatre design at The Slade in London, had a wealth of professional theatre experience, but none directing Shakespeare.

“I didn’t study Shakespeare at school,” he said. “But I did perform in a Berlin opera house when touring with a county youth production of Romeo and Juliet.”

The company needn’t have worried. The production was a huge success and played to an almost sell-out audience over four nights. The players expanded their numbers and began building a superb reputation and well-earned critical acclaim.

One year the late Lord Barnard attended a performance.

Old Well

“We invited him to the last night party,” Ms Brown remembers. “To our great surprise and delight he came along, heaping praise and copious amounts of celebratory whisky on the cast and crew.”

Things have not always been easy for the Players, especially when it concerned the weather. Ms Brown says: “It has rained, hailed, blown a gale and even, on one occasion, a crack of thunder was heard.

“One year the lights went out for a very short period of time and the audience lit the stage using their mobile phones. The actors have always continued with great professionalism, holding on to that famous maxim that the show must go on.”

In addition to Simon Pell and Laurence Sach, productions over the last 30 years have also been directed by Jill Cole, Gordon Duffy-McGhie and Mary Stastny whose contributions have added to the colour and vitality of the summer experiences.

And so to the 30th production, William Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy, Macbeth.

Adept at mixing fact with fiction, Shakespeare’s play is a cauldron full of prophecies, seasoned with mayhem and bloody murder.

This year’s director, Laurence Sach, who incidentally was the director of Durham Theatre Company all those years ago, tells us what to expect: “Macbeth is a fast-moving play that brings together both the power of the supernatural and the savagery of despotism – themes that continue to grip and fascinate.

“It’s proving to be an exciting journey for everyone in rehearsal, and I hope it will prove to be equally effective for our audiences.”

Macbeth plays in the grounds of The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle from July 10 to July 14.

Tickets from www.thewitham.org.uk – phone 01833 631107.

Helen Brown