Comedy, drama, Shakespeare and more this summer at Suffolk's theatre in the woods
- Credit: Thorington Theatre
Some of the biggest names in comedy as well as opera, drama, Shakespeare and children's theatre are performing at Suffolk's newest open air venue, Thorington Theatre, near Halesworth, this summer.
Stand-up Under The Stars brings Milton Jones (July 15), Simon Amstell (July 16), Nish Kumar (July 17) and Sara Pascoe (July 18) to the woodland theatre, created in a crater thought to have been left by a Second World War bomb.
They will be followed in July by productions for young audiences: Folksy Theatre's Little Red and the Big Bad Wolf, Heartbreak Productions' Mr Stink, by David Walliams, and This Is My Theatre's production of The Secret Garden.
Then British Touring Shakespeare brings its production of Twelfth Night, The Duke’s Company presents Romeo and Juliet, East Anglia Opera presents Hansel & Gretel, and Something Underground presents The Spirit of Woodstock.
You can see the full programme of productions running right through to the end of August on the website at thoringtontheatre.co.uk
The Greek-style amphitheatre at Thorington has been built by 30-year-old Silas Rayner, who was brought up in the county amidst his parents’ community of artists, actors and musicians, is creating the 350-seat open-air theatre at Thorington, near Halesworth, where he lives with his wife, Daisy, 35, and three children, Dulcie, six, Teddy, four, and Lucian, two. Daisy is a scenic artist and spent years painting theatre sets.
The family occupies a cottage on the 300-acre farm bought three years ago by Mark and Lindy O’Hare, who are both passionate about protecting the environment and who, with the help of their daughter, Joey, and daughter-in-law, Sophie, have already planted more than 7,000 trees.
Mark and Lindy, who previously lived at Southwold, are financing the project and the latter has taken on all the administrative duties, including the booking of events, including some for the current summer. By next year the summer season of events is likely to be much bigger, with the appearance of nationally known bands and theatre companies.
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It was in the woods at Thorington, on a site near to the crater, that six years ago Silas put on the first of his annual fancy dress music events, called The Pirates Ball. But it was only after the family had moved into the farm cottage three years ago that the idea of creating an amphitheatre in the crater came to him.
“I hadn’t set foot in the crater until we came to live here. I sat on the bank one day and I just imagined a band playing at the bottom and people sitting around.
“When Mark mentioned he’d like parts of the wood coppiced, the cogs of the idea started to click into place because I knew the work would create a lot of timber and I began to think about building raked seating.”
Coppicing involves the cutting of a tree trunk near to the ground. It stimulates new growth, numerous stems shooting up instead of a single trunk, although only certain tree species benefit from such management work, including chestnut, oak, ash and hazel.
“It took me about a year to pluck up the courage to ask Mark and Lindy about the theatre idea, because I knew if they said no that would be it and the project would never happen. Fortunately they said yes, they really liked the idea. Now it has turned into something much bigger than I ever thought. It’s very rare to get to see this sort of idea happen.”
Much of the timber being used at Thorington, for the seating, bar and changing rooms for the actors, is coppiced chestnut, a species which is very durable outdoors. Pine and Larch has also been utilised.
“We’ve built the structure to fit the land. One the joys of this site was that it already had that special magic. The light inside these woods is incredible when the sun shines,” Silas said. “And there’s something about a woodland environment, it’s a comfortable place to be in and a lot of people don’t get to spend much time in such places.”
Silas and his small band of craftspeople, including his father, Lez, and carpenter, Alan Horne, started coppicing in the winter of 2019 and building of the theatre started in June last year. In January this year they were joined by Amy Carroll who has wide theatrical experience and is to be the theatre’s first manager.
“If you talk about carbon footprint, what we’ve done here is harvest the timber and use it for the theatre – it’s not going anywhere else. The coppiced trees grow back twice as vigorous as before. So as construction projects go you really don’t get any greener than this,” he said.
“The blessing of Covid, if there is such a thing, is that it gave us the time. Lockdown happened and Mark and Lindy said let’s go ahead with the theatre. If it had not happened everyone would have been so busy with normal life. It would probably have been built, but not so quickly.”
After leaving school, Silas enrolled for a horticultural course at Otley College, started a gardening magazine, set up a landscaping company and then spent two years living in Wales. For the past eight years he has run an events company and its primary work was to organise a music festival called Maui Waui, held in various locations in Suffolk. This year it is crosses the border into Norfolk, to Dereham.
“I spent my entire childhood being surrounded by creative people and you can’t help being influenced. I love putting on things which are a celebration of all the enjoyment people can get from life in terms of arts and creativity. New spaces create ideas for things to happen,” he said.
“It has been incredibly hard work but we’ve had a golden opportunity to create a space which is of major use to the artistic community and will inspire new ideas. People talk about sleepy old Suffolk but there’s a lot of creative people in this county that have done great things.”
In the future, Silas has plans for a big children’s festival and, to follow the new amphitheatre, a large tree-house structure which could be used for a variety of purposes, including yoga. Lindy says that from the outset, she and her husband wanted the project to be as 'green' and sustainable as possible, to include local people and provide another destination for visitors to the Suffolk coast.
“We thought at first it would just be a small project with four or five shows a year but its now grown to be much bigger and is very exciting for all of us,” she said.
More information about Thorington Theatre and its programme of events are listed on its website at thoringtontheatre.co.uk
Meanwhile, an appeal has gone out for information about the site of the amphitheatre. It is one of four 'craters' in the vicinity of Thorington Hall which is believed to have been used as a barracks for United States servicemen during the war.