Elephant Park’s a stage for community theatre group

Elephant Park’s a stage for community theatre group

On a warm summer evening in July, Elephant Park was transformed into the enchanting Forest of Arden for a performance of William Shakespeare’s play As You like It.

Behind the sell-out show was a community group called The People’s Theatre Company, led by artistic director John Whelan. John, who lives in the local area, explains how he came up with the idea for the company, which has local amateurs and interested residents ‘treading the boards’.

‘I was involved in art and theatre groups in Liverpool. When I moved to south London four years ago, I found there wasn’t much community theatre for adults. So I met with the Southwark Playhouse and suggested setting up a company for just that purpose. They said ’great’, and The People’s Theatre Company was born.’

John is passionate about theatre and the power it has to bring communities, such as Elephant & Castle, together. ‘From the Mystery Plays of the medieval era, when you had the local townsfolk taking part in productions, theatre has always been about community. What we’re doing with The People’s Theatre Company is no different.’

Elephant Park is carrying on this rich tradition of theatre in Elephant & Castle – and John says the outside venue was the perfect place to perform As You like It.

‘The playing space was a park within an urban setting, which was ideal for the locations in the story. In our production, we used the building areas as the court of Duke Frederick, while the trees and grass became the Forest of Arden.’

Working with Shakespeare’s text can be daunting for some people, but John explained that it helped some of the company to gain a better grasp of English. ‘We have a really multinational group and many of them have said working with the text has improved their understanding of our language and our sense of humour.’

More serious subjects are also explored within the group, says John. ‘As You like It contains themes about the environment and the abuse of power. These are things that are relevant for the community and the wider world today. So working through the text and discussing the issues allows the community to air their views and express themselves.’

The team at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre has supported John all the way. As a tie-in to their own production of As You Like It, running this summer, they invited The People’s Theatre Company to perform in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse within the Globe, and participate in workshops with the practitioners.

Inspired by the success of As You Like It, John is already working on another Bard-based project that aims to link up the parks of London in a ‘corridor’ of Shakespeare performances.  

In addition, The Peoples’ Theatre Company has produced a play about World War I in collaboration with the Tate, and devised a new piece of theatre about Marie Henderson, a pioneering actress and director of the Victorian era, who was based in Southwark.

For now, we’ll wish The People’s Theatre Company all the best for future success – break a leg!

Shakespeare’s As You Like It

  • One of Shakespeare’s best-loved comedies, the play is thought to have been written around 1599
  • It follows the story of Rosalind, who flees from the court of Duke Frederick and ventures into the Forest of Arden with her cousin Celia. There they meet the exiled old Duke and his followers, including the melancholy Jacques, whose observations on life include some of the Bard’s most famous lines, including ‘All the world’s a stage…’
  • Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith are among the famous actors who have performed in the play on stage or screen