When Benito Mussolini’s play about Napoleon’s life flopped at the Noël Coward Theatre (who would have thought?) a last minute emergency production of Twelfth Night was put together. When its run was over, they decided to keep it going. Daringly, they set up camp at a temporary outdoor theatre in the middle of Regent’s Park to continue their production.
By the following year, the theatre was putting on a whole Shakespeare season, and it all took off from there. Even during wartime, the usual disadvantage of being outside played to their advantage as ‘bomb damage’ wasn’t a real threat to closure. Productions continued as usual, and after the war the permanence of the Open Air was affirmed by new brick dressing rooms, and by 1974 the amphitheatre was built with theatre features (like a box office and kitchen) to accompany it.
Curiously it was only in 1983, over 50 years after the Open Air staged its first play, that a musical was put on at the theatre. Bashville (written by the Open Air’s artistic director at the time) was the first in a line of musicals to be produced there, including the Olivier-nominated Kiss Me Kate in 1997, award-winning Hello, Dolly! in 2009, plus the 2005 High Society which went on to tour the UK and had a West End transfer.
In the last few years the theatre’s built more facilities around its amphitheatre for actors and patrons, as well as introducing a ‘Shakespeare Re-imagined’ season with Shakespeare plays adapted for young ones.