Countdown to the opening of Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre in York

James Cundall, chief exective, of Lunchbox Theatre Production Limited, with two members of the York Waits, on the York Bar Walls.
James Cundall, chief exective, of Lunchbox Theatre Production Limited, with two members of the York Waits, on the York Bar Walls.
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With work under way on Europe’s first ever pop-up Shakespearean theatre, Sarah Freeman catches up with the team behind the landmark project.

James Cundall has had much cause to ponder Richard III’s kingdom for a horse speech and that famous balcony scene in Rome and Juliet. He’s also been thinking a lot about public toilets, parking and what he’s going to do if this summer is a washout.

Cundall is the man behind ambitious plans to build Yorkshire’s answer to the Globe theatre next to York’s Clifford’s Tower. Opening in June and similar in style to London’s South Bank venue, the open-roofed, Elizabethan-style theatre with three balcony tiers will house almost 1,000 people and the 10-week programme will boast more than 130 performances of Richard III, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

“There is a lot to do, but this now is the exciting bit,” says Cundall, who is chief executive of Lunchbox Theatrical Productions. “It’s not all glamorous. At the moment top of my to-do list is to finalise how many toilets we need, but much of the hard work has been done and I think we are all now looking forward to welcoming the first audiences through the doors.”

The design has been inspired by the forerunner to the Globe and it will be the first ever pop-up Shakespearean theatre in Europe.

“Doing something no one else has done over here has it challenges, but right from the start it just felt such a good fit,” says Cundall. “The plays have all been cast, the creative team is in place and now we just need to fit the rest of the jigsaw pieces together.”

The project will be launched to a national audience on April 23 – Shakespeare’s birthday – and while the venue hopes to capitalise on York’s tourist footfall, Cundall insists that much has already been invested in ensuring the productions are of the highest possible quality.

“Yes, the Rose Theatre will be a tourist attraction, but it’s also about putting on great theatre for the people of Yorkshire. With four productions, we want people to come see one and then come back again and again.

“As part of the plans we included an Elizabethan garden. We want to turn this corner of York into a place people want to spend some time. I know that for some, Shakespeare can seem daunting, off-putting even. What I really want it to spark people’s interest, I want them to grab a coffee, have a look around and then encourage them to come inside.”

The theatre will be built on-site and with work beginning at the end of May it will be a very visible presence in the city even before opening night.

“As the theatre begins to take shape that will be our living breathing advertisement,” says Cundall. “But even before a piece of scaffolding has gone up, ticket sales have been pretty healthy.

“One of the reasons for establishing the Rose Theatre was to turn young people onto Shakespeare. We sent out 8,000 letters to schools and we also set up a bursary scheme so that those who think their pupils might not be able to afford tickets can apply to come for free.

“That’s hugely important to me. Culture and the arts can change lives and I honestly believe that seeing Shakespeare in somewhere like the Rose Theatre will be something you remember for ever.”

While many local authorities have cut back on arts provision to meet ever-demanding budgets, Cundall says the project won early support from York Council, which gave Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre the green light last autumn.

“There are a pretty hectic few weeks ahead, but come June 25 when the first cast takes to the stage for the matinee production of Macbeth, I plan to take my seat in the audience,” adds Cundall. “That will be my time to enjoy what we have all achieved.”

Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre, June 25 to September 2,