Our Future

After sixty years of performing the plays of Shakespeare on Brownsea Island, we are sad to announce that the Brownsea Open Air Theatre’s 2024 Macbeth will be the last production in our established format on the island.

Brownsea Open Air Theatre (BOAT) performances have long been a familiar part of the activities on Brownsea Island. Following the Island's acquisition by the National Trust in 1962, discussions with a local theatre company the following year led to a performance of The Tempest in 1964. We have worked together since then for the benefit of the island.

BOAT is a charity community theatre project devoted to raising funds for the work of the National Trust and the Dorset Wildlife Trust by means of an annual production of Shakespeare on the island, attended by over 4000 people each year.  These numbers are comprised of not only local residents but also many from across the UK and beyond who would not otherwise visit this beautiful Island in Poole Harbour. Our charity has already donated over £300,000 to the National Trust and our supporters and patrons commend and support the professional standards we achieve.

But it is also much more than this: BOAT welcomes and encourages members of the local community to come and join us to learn about the art of making exciting theatre: we provide some of the only, and some of the most freely available, theatrical training opportunities in the area, and are proud that some of our personnel have gone on to found their own professional companies and to perform with established organizations such as the Royal Shakespeare Company. Over the years we have evolved to the point where we have been awarded national recognition. Together with professional companies, we have been included in the Guardian’s Top Ten Open Air Theatres in the UK, and we are privileged to have links with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Our contribution to the cultural life of the nation was recognised last year when we were invited to an evening celebration of Shakespeare, hosted by King Charles and Queen Camilla at Windsor Castle.

We have also been in consultation with the National Trust since 2019 to develop a natural Amphitheatre on the island. This would provide a new performance space for BOAT, and could also be used by other hirers too, increasing the income for the National Trust. These plans were hit by the Covid pandemic, and also the loss of funding from the EU.

In a meeting in November 2023, the National Trust Island Management team unexpectedly announced that from the summer of 2024 a more minimal style of show should be undertaken. A show where audience members bring their own seating to sit on the grass, with less elaborate sets and staging. All in all, an event greatly reduced in scale.

A number of reasons were cited for this: the use of the temporarily-constructed auditorium and its impact on the local environment both physically and aesthetically; staffing issues; the time taken to build the set, and the late transfer of patrons back to Poole Quay after performances.

It was suggested by the NT that as funding for the Amphitheatre project was in short supply, BOAT should forego the use of a temporary auditorium and pay the sum thus saved towards the Amphitheatre.  At that time, no grant had been applied for, no costings established and no Project Manager appointed,

It was quickly realised by BOAT, and communicated to the National Trust, that chartering a ferry not just for its 4000 plus patrons each season but for the seating equipment they would be obliged to bring with them would make the alternative style of production financially unviable.

We proposed that if we could be allowed to perform Macbeth in 2024 in our usual format with the Auditorium, we would commit to a shorter set build term thereafter and also ensure an earlier start and finish.  In addition, to assist funding, we offered to donate to the Amphitheatre project a sum equivalent to the cost of the Auditorium, in other words, pay for it twice. This was not taken up.

However, taking this, and the logistical difficulties inherent in abandoning a complex production already eighteen months into its two year cycle, the Island Trust agreed that BOAT could go ahead with the 2024 Macbeth.

In a final meeting this January, BOAT were given three ways in which we would be allowed to continue beyond 2024. They included the proposal already described and dismissed as financially detrimental, and another that was not feasible due to health and safety considerations and impractical time constraints.

The third was that we should leave the Island, lie fallow for a year, to consider the Amphitheatre project.  When the project was first proposed before lockdown, the suggestion never arose that we should cease our productions on the island whilst the project was developed.  

Our preferred option -- to continue making the full-scale productions that our audiences have come to expect and thereby assist with future funding for the Amphitheatre – was not included in recent meetings, and our request to have it considered was rejected.

The Trustees of BOAT felt that they had been placed in a position that offered no choice other than to move off the Island after this summer’s production.  This choice was not easily made, nor was it one we wanted to make, because:

  1. As a thriving and successful theatre company of over 60 years standing, we wish to continue our commitment to the Arts and our extensive involvement in our local community while also supporting the National Trust.
  2. To be inactive for any time, as was the case during lockdown, means financial loss on an annual basis, and this prevents us from supporting the National Trust.
  3. The National Trust and BOAT are aware that the realisation of the Amphitheatre project could span a number of years for which no provision has been made and this would prevent us from supporting the National Trust.

Those of us at BOAT who are aware of the details of this process are saddened that the National Trust has placed us in a situation whereby removing ourselves from the Island is the only practicable outcome made available to us.

We still support the Island’s Amphitheatre Project, and hope that if it comes to fruition we will still be in a position to be part of its success.

We would like to thank the National Trust for the support we have had up to this point and for the years we have enjoyed on the island on behalf of ourselves, our patrons and our supporters.

As a body the trustees are fully committed to finding an alternative home on the mainland so that BOAT can continue to flourish and nurture the local theatre scene. 

We would like to offer our deeply felt thanks and gratitude to all those supporters who have been involved in the productions we have made over the years. Without you we would not have been able to make great theatre and support the National Trust.

We cannot ever properly or fully express our deep-seated gratitude to all of our patrons who have come to see us since our infancy 6 decades ago.  You have been all that a theatre company could possibly want or be lucky enough to have.

Thank you.

23 April 2024

For press enquiries you can contact us here.