Raising the Roof

There’s something about doing a play outdoors.

  • Rain.
  • Bees.
  • Helicopters.

Also:

  • Sunshine.
  • Sunsets.
  • Magic.

I just did Twelfth Night in Ludlow Castle. Ludlow Castle is REALLY OLD. It was a major base during the Wars of the Roses, Edward IV sent the Prince of Wales and his brother (later the princes in the tower) to live there, and Prince Arthur and his wife Catherine of Aragon called it home for a bit. It has a crumbling mixture of Gothic arches and Norman ones, Tudor chimneys and sensitive1990s timber fixtures to stop you breaking your neck as you wander through its labyrinthine corridors and stairwells. It also features families of pigeons living in chimneys and recesses where floor supports used to be.  As someone in our cast suggested, these are pigeons that might be related to pigeons from when the Tudors were hanging out there. Pigeons with heritage.  Pigeons that can tell their grandchildren stuff.

The DSM’s box framed in a norman arch in the chapel

The thought of performing somewhere with this much history and fame behind it was intimidating at first, but, as with the crypt showings Baz did in April, it makes everyone up their game a bit. It felt like we were on location, in another time and place, where imagination can range further than the back row of the stalls.

We were outside, in the elements, with the bats and the birds and the bees. And the rain. We played mostly in dry weather, but had two particularly rainy nights. One was the dress run, which had to be abandoned before someone slipped over on the ‘black run’ as we lovingly called it (a particularly steep ramp from the stage), but the other wet performance carried on to the bitter end, with only a brief pause whilst the downpour got the worst of itself out of its system. When it rained for the dress run we were scared of our 1930s costumes getting ruined (the director set the play in civil war Spain) and so some of us donned yellow plastic ponchos. This was hilarious and miserable all at the same time. When we encountered rain for the second time, we were more hardy, more confident on our raked set despite the very real threat of aqua-planing, and so no one turned to the poncho for protection (onstage that is – the audience were very well prepared). Instead, a sense of mischief crept in, as the audience and the actors, both in the same amount of precipitation, formed a cohesive bond – and together we shared a massive in-joke.

It was impossible to ignore the rain as we had been sort of doing before it stopped play momentarily. There was a moment when I was looking at my colleague who was playing the Duke Orsino, his light grey suit getting darker as it became increasingly saturated during Act 2 scene 4, a long scene, and I wondered what would happen if I alluded to the fact that we were all entirely soaked. But I didn’t acknowledge it, and chose instead to pretend it was not raining and that it was all fine and keep calm and carry on. A cop out I reckon. “Play the space you are in!” echoed round my brain from our days at the Crypt…

After the break, in which we all got tea and cake and stood next to heaters and wondered how many of the audience 1) would get pneumonia 2) ask for a refund 3) still actually be there when we started again, we started to play a bit more. Andrew Aguecheek took off his straw boater and fanned himself as if it were a sunny day. Fabian, dressed smartly as a driver for Lady Olivia took his driving goggles from his cap and wore them to keep the rain out of his eyes, and after Viola had wished for Olivia that “the heavens rain odours” on her,  the two had a contest about who should sit on the soaking wet seat, Olivia daintily wiping the surface of it to try and convince Viola to sit and listen to her. Malvolio tried to read Maria’s letter as it disintegrated in his hand for the lines “soft, soft” – which became soft, VERY soft”, and for the final song aptly titled “Heigh Ho the wind and the Rain” Feste raised the audience’s spirits and managed to get us the warmest applause of the entire run.

 “When it rains it is good for my game. When it is sunny it is good for my game” Rafael Nada.

 It was so freeing to be outside. It was like being let out into the playground at lunchtime after being in school learning stuff all morning. It was relaxing, alive and fun. When Viola says she would hallow Olivia’s name to the reverberate hills, there were actually reverberate hills to hallow to. Also, doing a vocal warm-up from the top of a medieval look-out tower as you look out on Shropshire countryside was rather inspiring.

The lighting was special too, considering the designer had to factor in both the sun and the night. Even when it rained, the blue remembered hills faded into graduating greys and when it was a matinee the sun made the grass ping out super greens.

 Another rubbish sunset at Ludlow Castle.

Ludlow has beautiful sunsets. Every night. It got a bit boring. One night I tried to capture the view from the castle on my iphone, which did it no justice at all.

The sun set as the play reached Act 5, so we went from being in the same light as the audience, through twilight, to them being engulfed in night. It was magic. Theatre with the lid taken off.

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