Thanks to some quick thinking and a little shove from me, my dear friend Doug has secured us both standing tickets to see Twelfth Night at the Globe this autumn, with Stephen Fry as Malvolio. I am indifferent to Fry’s acting abilities, and find he makes a much better orator than actor or comedian, but I love the Globe (and not just for the gift shop).
For A-Level Theatre Studies, many moons ago (I’m not sure how many moons, but it was upwards of ten years), I saw a great many plays, and thanks to my unorthodox education I saw a great many performances of plays and ballets during secondary school, too (in fact this is how I first came to visit the Globe, not long after it first opened). One of the discoveries I made as a result of this glut of theatre trips was that theatres, no matter how plushly decorated or comfortable or well-lit, are after a few minutes just a dark box with a lot of people in them.
This is well and good when you’re working in them: the busy-busy-busy of cast and crew, front of house and concession keeps one far too occupied to begin any sensation of being contained. In the audience, with little to do but lose yourself in the performance, it’s often uncomfortable to be jerked out of your reverie and reminded that you are hunkered down with strangers watching a pretence unfold.
Happily, having had the dubious privilege of growing up in the West Country, I’ve also been familiar with the solution to this problem for some time: as a child, and later an adolescent, I saw several performances by Kneehigh Theatre.
There are few things quite as exciting, to my mind, as open-air theatre. Everything has an element of risk involved: it could rain at any minute (and indeed at last summer’s performance of Dr Faustus at the Globe the heavens opened and the clouds rumbled and I was blue-lipped and shivering by the time the eponymous doctor was dragged to hell), the outside world stops for no man, and while the immersion may seem incomplete as a result I’ve always found that it feels more like theatre that way. There’s a sense of being involved in a very long theatrical tradition, pre-dating the establishment of permanent theatres, an odd connection to the history of the art form and the history of the story being told, as well as the story itself.
For example, some time in the late 90s or very early 00s, I had the opportunity to watch a performance of Arabian Nights put on by the Kneehigh theatre company, by torchlight, in the ruins of an 11th century abbey. Needless to say, it was an atmospheric and captivating performance; likewise when a friend of mine attended a staging of Macbeth at the incredible Minack Theatre, and the weather obligingly added further special effects in the form of a thick fog that engulfed the actors and left the audience isolated with the witches.
Principally the real charm of open-air theatre is the feeling of luck. One might have a thoroughly miserable time, weather-wise (as I did during Dr Faustus and my adventures with hypothermia) that is redeemed by an excellent and sympathetic cast who incorporate the vagrancies of meteorology into their performance (“By this sign, I know the sorcerer to be near!” cried Benvolio, off-script, as the heavens flashed lightning above our heads, and followed his ad-lib with thunder. The audience tittered as they had hooted and snickered at every mention of the sea, rains, or waters all afternoon. He paused. “Back to Marlowe!”). One might end up with a feeling of camaraderie with the remainder of the audience in the face of hardships endured, even making friends.
I hasten to explain, I don’t think all forms of theatre are suited to this particular medium. Open-air theatre works best for plays which were written for open-air theatre, not for those written for Stanislavskian realism, Brechtian dislocation or any other sort of self-conscious theatrical movement. The kind of play that requires two people staring rigidly at each other wrapped up in private torments fares badly, and so Pinter is also right out.
Old stories suit this kind of theatre best, old stories and strong stories. Folklore, myths, fairytales, Biblical accounts, lyrical words and vast ideas. The works of Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Petronas, and later the anonymous Beowulf, the sublimely-authored Canterbury Tales in any adaptation, and of course the works which have drawn me back to the South Bank to receive sunstroke, hypothermia, and a crick in my neck: Shakespeare’s. They were made to be called out over a rustling audience outside a bow byre, standing on a barn door, accompanied by a persistently out-of-tune mandolin. They were written to be declaimed around a stone depression in a cliff face. These are strong words which have survived centuries of use because of their rhythm and the tenacity and universality of their stories (and perhaps somewhat because certain cultures went tramping around the world inflicting them on other people, although the Ramayana‘s performance continues, too).
Which is not to say that more modern plays cannot be made to fit the form; I believe that Waiting for Godot and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead would both play wonderfully not only open-air but in situ. Performances have been put on in the cells of old prisons and in the car-parks of nightclubs, and I love the shady feel of that, the idea of theatre as illicit and somehow dangerous to experience, something you huddle around to listen to.
What is my conclusion? My conclusion is that even living in the middle of a city which has an absolute embarrassment of music halls, theatres, and pubs with stages upon which to enact its dramas, I’m still afforded the opportunity by the Globe and the Regents Park open air theatre to relive the parts of my youth I spent wrapped in a blanket, plonked down in a bush, enraptured as three men and a woman wove an entire world out of a handful of props and some battered instruments.