‘Mad, or well advised?’ (Comedy of Errors) – an exploration of open air theatre

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A few weeks ago, I donned a raincoat, twelve layers of clothing and a camping chair to go and see The Wet Mariners perform The Comedy of Errors at the Arches Theatre in weather that felt like February. Frankly, I’ve never been so excited to be rained on. I’d have been there if it was hailing and I was the only person in the audience. 

Part of this excitement was, admittedly, down to a long six months without theatre. My routine is typically punctured with shows, rehearsals or a mixture of both, and over lockdown, I found myself adrift and under stimulated without it. That’s not to say I didn’t love the accessibility of performance that the COVID screenings from the National and the Globe opened up, but the brilliance of theatre is that it is living. It is live and electric and dependent on an in-person actor to audience connection, which is something that even the most exciting productions I saw over lockdown were missing. Even Michelle Terry’s Hamlet, one of the most emotional productions of the play that I’ve ever seen, felt a little lackluster in comparison to the ‘real’ thing.

Open air theatre has been suggested as the salve to the lockdown theatre drought.

Open air theatre has been suggested as the salve to the lockdown theatre drought. The cure to the arid vacuum I found myself in without a show to depend on. The Mariners didn’t disappoint. With four actors playing all sixteen of the characters, the process of producing a comprehensive Shakespeare that complied with COVID regulations was enough of a challenge without adding the freezing cold and very intense rain into the mix. That’s the thing about outdoor theatre, particularly in Britain. The weather is a part of the production; another character, something that affects your delivery (you try stage-whispering Juliet’s final monologue to an audience twelve feet away while balancing a gale) and forces you to think on your feet when the fight scene you had rehearsed becomes impossible as the stage is covered in rainwater. 

It’s a return to theatre’s beginnings- plays like Antigone or Medea or Romeo and Juliet were written for the open air, and it rips away any pretension to stuffiness and delivers the language at full throttle.

For some shows, it’s a blessing. Outdoor theatre is miles away from the air-conditioned auditorium of the National, there is relatively little lighting and you are reliant on the talent of the actor to bring the piece to you. You are fully aware of the emotional tenor of the piece; there’s an intensity that sitting inside the armchairs of the Barbican just doesn’t have, and you are reminded of the genuine humanity behind the language that the comfort of an auditorium can often make you forget. The thing is, you have to work with nature. It has to be part of the practice – you can’t pick up a piece that’s been rehearsed in the cosy indoors and expect it to feel the same on an outdoor stage without a roof. For the Mariners, born in 2012 at the Willow Globe in Wales, it’s as much a part of the company as the actors, and it shows. The work is seamless, energetic and flexible. The same goes for Jesus Christ Superstar at Regent’s Park, which is one of my favourite venues. They’ve been doing outdoor theatre for thirteen years, and the capricious nature of the weather brings a freshness to their shows that can often go unparalleled. I’m not sure it would work for everything; shows like Ivo Van Hove’s A View From The Bridge (2015) are made so brilliant because of the technical precision that underpins them. The lighting and the music serve a fundamental purpose; they highlight the claustrophobia of Miller’s play in a way that it would be weakened without. 

But for classical plays, I think outdoor theatre is a lifeline. It’s a return to theatre’s beginnings – plays like Antigone or Medea or Romeo and Juliet were written for the open air, and it rips away any pretension to stuffiness and delivers the language at full throttle. It leaves you at the mercy of the elements, the words and the experience and offers a sense of proximity that, when we all have to stay six feet apart, feels more necessary than ever.

Image: From the Arches Theatre website

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