Issue 116: 2017 08 03: A Very British Event (Lynda Goetz)

03 August 2017

A Very British Event

Open-air theatre and problematic weather.

By Lynda Goetz

Memories are often founded not on what actually happened, nor, of course, on the boring daily trivia, but centre rather around particular events.  Our memories of years past are coloured by these occasions and the weather at these fixed points can even become our memory of the weather for that entire winter or summer.  Was Wimbledon marred by rain or did the sun shine throughout the fortnight?  Were the weddings attended idyllic celebrations in glorious gardens, and how often did we get out the barbecue? This summer seemed, for a long time, to be made up of heat and of bright, sunny, if sometimes humid days.  Latterly things have changed and certainly in the West Country we have had quite serious downpours on a pretty regular basis; great for the garden, but not so good for functions or summer get-togethers and certainly not ideal for open-air theatre.

My first memory of open-air theatre was a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Regents Park with, if I recall rightly, Brian Blessed playing Bottom.  The weather was fine, I was in the company of friends and the play was absolutely suited to the setting.  We were not organised enough after work to bring our own picnic but purchased memorable bratwurst from the on-site BBQ at the interval. Subsequent attendances at outdoor performances of various Shakespeare productions (usually the comedies are chosen) and a mixture of other plays in some superb surroundings, including the sublime setting of the Minack in Cornwall, all come with their associated memories of the picnics and the weather.  Sunday’s production of Twelfth Night by Folksy Theatre in Hestercombe Gardens just outside Taunton was no exception.

Hestercombe Gardens are historic gardens of 50 acres, open to the public, with both formal and landscape areas.  The original plan was to visit the formal areas, originally a collaboration between the celebrated duo of Edward Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll, between public closing time at 6pm and the performance at 7pm.  As it was pouring with rain most of Sunday afternoon and continued to do so by the scheduled departure time, the decision to skip garden viewing seemed sensible.  On passing in front of the not-so-beautiful house (open as a contemporary art gallery) on our way to the performance in the Orangery, the stunning view over Somerset from the terraces made me vow to come back at a future date.  We collected our pre-purchased tickets and bought a programme from a charming, pretty girl keeping temporarily dry under a pop-up gazebo.  Moving across the lawn, we positioned our fold-away chairs behind the people who had already installed themselves with picnics and umbrellas in the ‘front rows’; before us, a classic restored Orangery with steps up to the terrace in front of it and a raised circular extra stage on top of that.  A perfect open-air venue – apart from the rain.

To the left of us a couple in sailing oilskins tucked into a picnic.  Ahead of us a group in Barbour jackets and, by their own admission, wearing long johns, enjoyed glasses of Prosecco.  In front of them a family group handed round quiche and pizza.  We joined the feast, balancing our glasses of wine on the sodden lawn and enjoying our marinaded chicken and goats cheese salad from the plastic containers whilst taking it in turns to hold up our large golfing umbrella.  A picnic rug with waterproof back wrapped around my legs stopped the rain puddling in the base of my canvas seat from soaking my jeans.

The sound of a violin drew our attention and the ticket seller, who turned out to be the lead actress Fiona McGarvey in a simple moss green dress with a violin tucked under her chin, skipped lightly onto the stage accompanied by a delicate-looking man holding a guitar.  As the rain hammered down noisily on the collection of multi-coloured golf-umbrellas below them, they laughingly performed some musical numbers whilst expressing some concern that they might not be very audible.  Upon the arrival of a collection of sailors dressed in vivid yellow oilskins (the production is in modern dress) the two musicians transformed themselves into brother and sister, Sebastian (actor, musical director and composer, Andrew Armfield) and Viola, and joined in the shipwreck.  The rain lent credence to the scene.

As the Regent’s Park Open-Air Theatre says on its website, ‘the wonderfully unpredictable nature of open-air theatre makes each visit here extraordinary and thrilling’.  Is this a universal statement or merely a statement referring to our unreliable British weather?  I am pretty certain that the ancient theatre in Delphi did not suffer from constant concern about imminent downpours during summer performances.  Perhaps it is telling that the open air theatres dotted around ancient Greece and Rome date back over a couple of thousand years rather than the 85 years claimed by Regent’s Park or the few hundred years to the original founding of the old Globe Theatre (the new one, thanks to the efforts of Sam Wannamaker, was finally rebuilt a short distance away from the original in 1996).

Anyway, Sunday’s performance was great and a testament not only to the tenacity and spirit of the slightly reduced audience, but in particular to the stalwart and continually upbeat performances of the actors, who, mainly without the benefit of oilskins, Barbours, long johns, walking boots or umbrellas, braved the unpredictable English summer to deliver, as promised, a ‘bold, fun and accessible’ performance of one of Shakespeare’s classic comedies.


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