Chichester Festival

Definition

Theater

  • An annual summer drama festival in Chichester, Sussex, inspiredby the Shakespeare Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ontario. It wasorganized by Chichester's ex-mayor Leslie Evershed-Martin, an amateuractor. Local citizens had pledged £42,000 by the time LaurenceOlivier accepted the appointment as the first director. Hewas offered £5,000 a year but only accepted £3,000.

    The theater, built in 1962, seats 1394 on three sides of ahexagonal auditorium (which Olivier helped to design). It was Britain'sfirst large open stage theater. The Festival opened that year witha 10-week season. Olivier starred in the productions and assembleda repertory company that was to provide the nucleus for the NationalTheatre: Sybil Thorndike, her husband Lewis Casson, Michael Redgrave,Fay Compton, Joan Greenwood, John Neville, Nicholas Hannen, and hiswife Athene Seyler.

    Despite this array of talent, the Festival began disastrously.The first production, Buckingham's farce The Chances, drewpoor reviews. Worse notices followed the second offering, The BrokenHeart, which featured Olivier as a jealous nobleman. Half theseats went unsold and the critic Kenneth Tynan wrote an open letterto Olivier blaming his management and saying, "all is not wellwith your dashing hexagonal playhouse, something has clearly gonewrong."

    The third try, Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, began just asbadly with missed cues and mismatched sound effects. Joan Greenwood,pregnant under a heavy costume, burst into tears after a hiss fromthe audience. Sybil Thorndike and Lewis Casson suffered one nightfrom the lack of a curtain. When Thorndike got up to leave the scenewith Casson, she noticed him asleep in his chair. "Waffles,Waffles," she called, using his character's name. When he continuedto slumber, she yelled, "Lewis! Wake up you silly old fool!".He leaped up fearfully and they exited.

    Just as it seemed that the Festival itself was in jeopardy,great reviews appeared and Uncle Vanya became the hit of theseason. Olivier, however, became drunk at the cast party and railedat Evershed-Martin, calling him a rich "theatrical ignoramus"who had founded Chichester to get a knighthood.

    The second season was a thorough success, opening with Shaw'sSaint Joan and featuring a revival of Uncle Vanya. Olivier,who became director of the National Theatre in 1963, was succeededat Chichester by John Clements, who was followed by Keith Michellin 1974. Subsequent directors have included Patrick Garland (1981 - 84, 1991 - 94) and Jonathan Church (2005 - ).

    Hits transferring from the Festival to the West End have includedPeter Shaffer's 1964 epic The Royal Hunt of the Sun, T. S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party in the 1968 production with Alec Guinness, anightmarish Macbeth (2007) with Patrick Stewart, and Lucy Prebble'sEnron (2009).

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