The first Wellington Summer Shakespeare was produced in 1983. The play was A Midsummer Night’s Dream and it was performed in the University Quad under the direction of Adrian Kiernander. He adapted the idea from Auckland University, who had staged a Summer Shakespeare almost every year since 1963. The production featured punk fairies and other recognisable facets of early 80s Wellington student culture. The show was produced by the Victoria University Drama Club, who were responsible for all the productions of the 1980s and 1990s. The Summer Shakespeare Trust was established in 1985 to provide advice, continuity and mentorship for each annual show.
Acclaimed director Colin McColl mounted Macbeth, again in the Quad, in 1984, set in an apocalyptic future. 1985’s Twelfth Night, directed by David Copeland, was staged in the old Majestic Cinema on Willis Street, and the Summer Shakespeare returned to the newly-roofed Quad the next year for Romeo and Juliet (starring Shortland Street’s now famous Michael Galvin as Romeo). As You Like It and King Lear followed, the latter a bizarre experimental production directed by Simon Bennett and starring Mick Rose as Lear. Much Ado About Nothing and Measure For Measure were performed indoors at the University Memorial Theatre in 1989 and 1990.
In 1991 David O’Donnell directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Dell in the Botanic Gardens. This new venue proved hugely popular and he returned the next year to direct Richard III there, with Jonathon Hendry playing the famous king.
Adrian Kiernander returned from Australia to celebrate the tenth anniversary of his initial Summer Shakespeare with a production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona in 1993. Butoh-influenced productions of Pericles and a second Macbeth (featuring stilt-walking witches) followed. In 1996 the combined forces of Miranda Harcourt and then-Downstage programme manager Guy Boyce shifted the Summer Shakespeare into the central city with their 1950s-styled production of As You Like It in Civic Square.
From 1997 to 2000 the Summer Shakespeare was nomadic, with a medieval King John in the Dell, a 1920sThe Merchant of Venice on the steps of the Sacred Heart Cathedral, a catwalk fashion-extravaganza Twelfth Night in the carpark at Te Whaea: National Dance & Drama Centre, and Love’s Labour’s Lost in the Hunter Courtyard on the university campus. 1998 also saw the beginning of a long relationship between the Summer Shakespeare Trust and Gladstone Vineyard, with many productions enjoying seasons on the grounds of their Wairarapa vineyard as well as in Wellington.
Student culture changed drastically toward the end of the 1990s with the demise of a lot of extra-curricular student activities and organisations, and with the demise of the once-prosperous Drama Club, in the 21st century the Summer Shakespeare Trust took on a much greater governance role in the organising of each production. From 2001 to 2003 the Summer Shakespeare found a home in the outdoor amphitheatre at Victoria University’s Theatre department at Studio 77, Fairlie Terrace, with Peter Hambleton (who later featured in The Hobbit) directing Cymbeline.
Productions of Romeo and Juliet and Othello followed, before a Pasifika-themed The Tempest saw a return to the Dell. The powerhouse team of Rachel More and Jacqui Coats helmed both the 2005 and 2006 productions, with Much Ado About Nothing in a 1950s Kiwi setting staged in a marquee on the Boyd Wilson field, and a 19th century gold-rush themed The Taming of the Shrew outdoors at Te Papa. The Dell was once again the venue for 2007’s As You Like It, the third different Summer Shakespeare production of this play. After this show the Summer Shakespeare Trust made the decision to appoint a permanent administrator to provide more effective and direct continuity between each year’s production and to maintain an ongoing relationship with the many organisations who have supported the productions over the years.
The Summer Shakespeare took a break in 2008, but returned to launch NZ’s Complete Works year in 2009 with David Lawrence’s production of Henry V staged in the Studio 77 Amphitheatre. The same director and venue saw the close of the Complete Works festival with 2010’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and in 2011 the Summer Shakespeare returned to the Wellington Botanic Gardens for The Winter’s Tale in the Sound Shell.
For more information, you can buy 'Wellington Summer Shakespeare 1983–2017' - an extensive history of Summer Shakespeare in book form, by David Laurence here.