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Pendley Shakespeare Festival

You are in: Beds Herts and Bucks > Entertainment > Pendley Shakespeare Festival > A lifetime at Pendley!

Sarah Branston

Sarah Branston

A lifetime at Pendley!

Artistic Director Sarah Branston has been at the Pendley Shakespeare Festival literally every year of her life! She told us more about it.

Pendley Festival 2009

4-8 August 2008

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Will Edwards’ first production at Pendley is Shakespeare’s quintessential romantic comedy. Notorious thespian Peter Broad (Sir Toby Belch, Twelfth Night 2008) plays the notorious thespian Nick Bottom.

11-15 August 2008


Following his magical production of The Tempest in 2007, Stephen Artus returns to Pendley to direct Macbeth. With Sarah Whitehouse (Viola, Twelfth Night 2008) as Lady Macbeth, the production promises to be “bloody, bold and resolute”!

Eves: 8.00pm
Grounds open at 6.00pm for picnicers and refreshments are also available.

Box Office open from 2.00pm on the 7 July 2009

Tel: 01442 820060

Sarah Branston has been the Artistic Director of the Pendley Shakespeare Festival for some nine years now, but her association with the place goes back much further. Not only has she been to the Festival in every year of her life but her great-grandparents were in service at the house, her parents met at the festival and it has been rumoured that she was either born or conceived at the festival, or both, something which I’m sure you will realise is biologically impossible!

We asked her all about her years of involvement and why it’s so special.

How did you become the Artistic Director?

Sarah: I’ve always been around, whether it’s been as a child doing props or costumes or when I was in my late teens and when I graduated from university I was lucky enough to act here. The previous Artistic Director David Sherratt had run the admin side of the Festival for about ten years and when he retired, he said it needed somebody a bit younger and said that he thought I’d be lovely! So David off loaded the mantle, and it became my baby. Through most of my childhood and teenage years it’s given me a huge amount of pleasure and it’s a real privilege to be able to carry the tradition on.

You have a very long association with Pendley. Your parents met here and wasn’t your great-grandfather also involved here?

Sarah: Yes – he was the gamekeeper! My mum’s side of the family were in service here for Dorian Williams’ ancestors so there is a legacy. It’s quite odd when people say something like, “this is your 36th Festival, but you are 36?” But yes – I have been here every year of my life! As far as mum and dad are concerned it’s where they met so there’s an emotional fondness for the place [for us all], and I guess it’s lovely to be able to carry on that legacy because it means that that family history continues, and hopefully we’ll keep going for another 60 years!

Sarah Branston with Tom Attwood

Sarah Branston with Festival Director Tom Attwood

So your parents brought you here as a baby?!

Sarah: Yes. Mum was actually pregnant when she played Audrey in As You Like It. Part of the family history claims that I was born and conceived here which is a lie! It’s just a very convenient press story. I have a March birthday so you can work the maths out!

The lovely thing is that I’m able to bridge the gap between now and the tradition of the manor house as Dorian’s ancestral home and also when it was taken over as a hotel. I think that being able to bridge that relationship is something that I am most proud of. Essentially this [hotel] is a business and the idea that it sort of indulges this group of mad English eccentrics for three weeks of the summer is an original and one in a million relationship. It’s incredibly special. I think the hotel staff enjoy having us because it’s not a one day corporate event, we’re here fore three weeks of the year and you build a relationship with the hotel staff and it’s a lovely thing, a really special relationship.

It sounds like a very unique company?

Sarah: Yes – we only exist as a company for three weeks of the year. Tom [Attwood, the Festival Director] and I are the consistent factor and we get new people every year. Each new year brings with it a new company to perform that production, but we aren’t the Pendley Manor Shakespeare Company, we don’t get paid for doing the job. It’s just full of people like jobbing actors, students and teachers, but there are also people who take ten days holiday out of their precious 21 a year to make sure that this event is part of their annual season. I think that that’s the uniqueness of it. It doesn’t operate as a theatre company, it’s a group of random, sporadic, eccentric, individuals who love doing what they do.

The cast of The Merchant of Venice 2008

The cast of The Merchant of Venice 2008

It regenerates itself every year as well. There is a core of what you would call Pendley veterans, but each of these audition every year. Everything is genuinely cast on merit, and even though there are some familiar faces. For example Dougy Dean who’s playing Shylock this year is on his 11th Pendley, but he auditions every year, it’s not a given that he will be performing.

Every year there seems to be a core of people who have experienced the Shakespeare Festival for years before, but there’s also an injection of new talent which means that every year you have the old and the new and that’s what keeps it regenerating.

What is the working relationship between you and Tom, the Festival Director?

Sarah:  Tom is actually an ex-pupil of mine! My very first teaching job was at Oxted County Grammar School in Surrey and Tom was in the Sixth Form. I knew when I first met him that he was a precocious talent, a fantastically gifted musician and incredibly organised as an individual and I invited him to come and be the Assistant Stage Manager here, 10 or 12 years ago. He came as a naïve sixth former and by the end he was running everything, and doing it twice as well as everybody else!

Rehearsing Twelfth Night 2008

Rehearsing Twelfth Night 2008

So what’s been absolutely lovely over the past nine years is that there’s this lovely working relationship between Tom and myself. Tom is an actor/musician so has a bit more time and handles the administrative side of things. I teach full time as Director of Drama at Reigate Grammar School so I have less time for the administrative side so we came to a lovely equilibrium where Tom does the admin and I worry about the big artistic decisions. We describe ourselves as good cop and bad cop. Tom’s the good cop and smiles at everyone and if there’s anything serious I come in as the bad cop!

It’s a really lovely piece of teamwork and it’s like any working relationship, the best work happens out of effective teams and Tom and I are really lucky to have that reciprocal respect for one another. It makes it very, very easy!

last updated: 29/06/2009 at 16:11
created: 31/07/2008

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