A OPEN air theatre company is returning to Colchester Castle Park's beautiful grounds this month. 

Castle Park Theatre will return with their modernised all-female showing of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

The theatre was established three years ago and opened with their production of Julia Cesar in Lower Castle Park.

Last year they performed Midsummer Night’s Dream to 1,000 people over the course of showings, including 250 school children.

Producer, Neil D’arcy Jones, understands that Shakespeare is an important part of school curriculum and has been growing Castle Park Theatre’s school provision year after year.

“We do school packs and workshops, it’s all interactive so students can watch the show and later unpack the story in their classrooms,” Neil said.

Castle Park Theatre hosted an audience of four schools in 2023 and will be performing for seven schools and 350 school children this year.

“Lots of people find Shakespeare really, really hard and it was never meant to be taught in schools," Neil said. 

“When William - dear old Bill – was creating his plays 500+ years ago, I don’t think he ever imagined they’d be taught in schools – the plays were made for entertainment.

“When you see it performed on stage it all becomes much clearer and makes it easier for students to contextualise and write about in school."

This year, Castle Park Theatre hosted its very first casting call, which saw 56 men and women audition over three days.

Gazette:  Castle Park Theatre's production of Midsummer Nights Dream, 2023 Castle Park Theatre's production of Midsummer Nights Dream, 2023 (Image: Lisa Elem)

“We could’ve cast the show three times over - we had some really good men come and audition, but the women were just incredible,” Neil said.

It was decided that Castle Park Theatre’s 2024 production would be an all-female Macbeth, featuring actresses from across Essex, including 26-year-old Emily Millwood, from Chelmsford, and also from overseas, like 29-year-old Flavia Ferretti, from Italy.

Both actresses told me all about their casting experience.

“I love Macbeth, it’s one of my favourite Shakespeare plays and I was really excited to audition,” Emily said.

“When I got the call from Neil to say I’d been cast for McDuff, I was like… McDuff?

“It was a character I never thought – as a female – I’d ever get the chance to play and that’s the amazing thing about doing an all-female play."

Both Emily and Flavia were thrilled to have been given the opportunity to show their acting skills through their portrayal of male characters.

“At the end of the day what you’re doing with shows is telling a story," Flavia said. 

“It doesn’t matter who is playing the roles – different genders, ethnicities, backgrounds – times have changed and it’s nice to be able to make it more accessible."

Gazette: Castle Park Theatre's production of Midsummer Nights Dream, 2023Castle Park Theatre's production of Midsummer Nights Dream, 2023 (Image: Lisa Elem)

Shakespeare plays were written centuries ago, at a time when men dominated society – including theatre.

Producer, Neil, and his director, Partick Marlow, wanted to ‘broach’ this subject.

“I’ve always had the feeling, and people do disagree with me, that Macbeth is a misogynist play," Neil said. 

“It was written when King James I was in power, and he wasn’t a fan of women, so females do get a rough deal in the original story.

“In the end, Patrick and I, thought it would be great to make it an all-female production>"

Scripts for Macbeth were given to the cast early on in the production’s preparation period, which allowed the actresses to become familiar with their characters and dialogue before rehearsals started last week.

Emily and Flavia are playing both male and female roles, with both women playing witches as well as their male characters.

“Through rehearsals we’ve found lots of lines have gained new levels, when you hear a woman saying something instead of a man, it gains a different level," Flavia said.

“There’s so much to discover through the rehearsal process."

“We’ve really hit the ground running with rehearsals starting last week, because it’s all our own building blocks coming together to create the structure of the piece," Emily said. 

“It opens up the play to give new meanings, that we as actresses may not even know ourselves."

Being women playing male characters, I asked Emily and Flavia about the challenges they may have faced when adapting to their roles.

“It’s interesting, it’s about getting into a male headspace as well as learning the rules to being a man," Emily said. 

“There’s a scene where my character becomes quite emotional but has to maintain a masculine persona in front of these other men, and the first time we did it I cried my eyes out because I’m used to letting my emotions out

“The patriarchy affects men too, and I haven’t had those emotional restrictions placed on me, in my life, by society."

With being given much time to prepare, Flavia feels she has been able to get to know the male character that she will be portraying and understand their own struggles.

“I’m so glad we’ve had time to figure these details out, it’s not just ‘you go here, you go there’, it’s about why we’re going here and there," she said. 

“I’m playing one of the witches as well, and I really find the witch character quite liberating because we have so much fun with it."

Both actresses have previous experience with performing Shakespeare plays, with Flavia being cast as a main character in Romeo and Juliet, and Emily featuring in traditional, cross-gender casted open-air Shakespeare.

“Because – when the original plays were written and performed – female characters were played by men, women literally couldn’t be cast in plays – especially not in male roles,” Emily said

“I think the beautiful thing with Shakespeare is that everything the characters go through, they are human struggles and it’s the matter of presentation to help the audience see themselves in the characters we’re portraying,” Flavia added.

Both actresses have felt an extent of restriction, due to their backgrounds, throughout their acting careers and feel ‘lucky’ to be a part of an ‘accepting and understanding’ group, like Castle Park Theatre.

“It feels really special, as someone who has grown up in Essex," Emily said. 

"I remember being told when I first pursued acting that I’d have to get rid of my Essex accent, so to be able to work with this amazing bunch of women – a lot of whom are from Essex.

“It’s so nice to be able to do this in Essex, and for Essex."

Being from Italy originally, Flavia has experienced similar obstacles.

“I never thought I’d get a part in Shakespeare, because of my Italian accent, so I feel lucky to have been cast in this production,” she said.

Castle Park Theatre have been working with Colchester Council this year, to bring live open-air theatre back to Castle Park.

The council has supplied the group with their venue, assisted with bringing in admin staff and has put them ‘in the right direction’ in terms of reaching wider locations.

Macbeth will be showing for three weeks in Lower Castle Park, Colchester, running Wednesday to Saturday from June 5 – June 22, before moving on to Prested Hall, outside Feering, and Promenade Park in Maldon.

Castle Park Theatre hope to do something similar with next year’s production, with talks of performing in Canvey Island and Burnham.

“It would be great if Castle Park Theatre could tour the county, showing how great the actors from Essex are," Neil said. 

“We’re really trying to build up this Essex brand to be something really amazing, and cool, and great."

The group isn’t planning to focus solely on Shakespeare moving forward and have plans to create family shows and musicals in the future.

Ticket sales for Macbeth are doing well already, but there are plenty still available for purchase.

For more information, and to purchase tickets to see Macbeth, please visit castleparktheatre.co.uk.