NICHOLAS Young, director of Rainbow Shakespeare, tells a nice story in the course of extolling the virtues of outdoor theatre. The company, who are in their 18th year, were putting on a production of Romeo and Juliet when a police helicopter appeared in the sky overhead.

“You could feel the audience getting nervous and worried for the actors,” says Young, “but then Mercutio looked up and said ‘bloody Capulets’ and the audience gave a great round of applause. In open air theatre you’re quite often present at a unique happening.”

Nick’s wife Alex, who used to produce Rainbow shows in Worthing and now who calls herself an administrator in the group, remembers a similarly “unique" occasion. “We did The Tempest at Lewes Castle once and – fittingly – there was an absolute deluge. But Brits expect the show to go on. They came prepared with umbrellas and awnings.”

This might sound less than desirable but Alex says the adverse conditions actually played into the communal experience. Before showings of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merchant of Venice over the next two weeks, Nick says Rainbow have “built up a following in Worthing”. He says making The Bard’s considerable back catalogue accessible and understandable is the key to the group’s success. He cites an example of when Shakespeare goes wrong to prove his point.

“I remember a friend of ours who went to see a Shakespeare play at the Connaught [theatre in Worthing] and took their eight-year-old. At the end the boy said, ‘Mummy have we been very naughty?’. When she said no, he said: ‘please don’t punish us by making us watch any more plays by that man Shakespeare’. The people who put on that production really ought to be hung, drawn and quartered.”

Alex claims that the open-air atmosphere allows for a greater focus on the language of Shakespeare – and the great playwright’s often overlooked humour. “If the actors don’t understand why the lines they are saying are funny, or the wit behind it,” adds Nick, “how can you make audiences understand it? Once the audience know what’s going on, they can relax and enjoy all elements of the story.”

Nick has been involved in Shakespeare plays in one way or the other for almost his whole life, since falling in love with it at school. “Nobody ever told me it was difficult,” he says. “It was just about fights and poisoning and Ophelia running around in a white nightie.” His attitude towards directors who put radical spins on classic works is, at best, dismissive. “A lot of the time when I go to productions a director tries to do something outrageous and the audience doesn’t know who is who. You don’t have to fill it with gimmicks.”

Not that he and Rainbow Shakespeare are against throwing a few inventive techniques into the mix. Speaking directly to the audience is nothing new in Shakespeare plays, but introducing new characters to the crowd, as Rainbow do, is a nice touch. “You can break down the audience-actor barrier that way, so it’s not ‘them’ and ‘us’. I believe that you have to talk to the audience – there’s no fourth wall.” Another factor to the open air approach is the ability to gauge the spectators’ reactions directly – for better or worse.

“You can catch their eyes and see if they’re paying attention,” says Nick. “Or, alternatively, if they’re too occupied with their picnics.”

Rainbow Shakespeare

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, July 11 to 16
The Merchant of Venice, July 18 to 23

Highdown Gardens, Worthing, 7.30pm (2pm matinees on Saturday and Sunday), visit