Wednesday, July 15, 2009

UK Week 2: Mad Men and English Dogs (part two)

When I first came to London way back when, I got my first real introduction to theatre. Sure, I had seen productions before that, but I had never been immersed in plays as I was that summer. I've been smitten ever since. One of the experiences was seeing two productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream on two successive nights. The first night was the RSC production, the second in the Open Air Theatre at Regent's Park.

It was the first time I had really absorbed the idea that a play is a living thing. It wasn't just that the two productions were different -- though they were -- but that I finally understood that every production breathes life into a text that is only the birth of an idea, brought to flesh by the stage, the sets, the audience and, of course, the actors. The RSC production was elegant, superbly acted and magnificent. But the Open Air version was hilarious, engaging and immediate. I felt as if this was the experience Shakespeare had wanted us to have. And it made me want to write plays -- there's no feeling quite like having your words live in that space.

So I'm always keen to visit the Open Air Theatre and see something fun. This time around it was their all-ages version of The Tempest, one of my faves. I was curious to see how they adapted it for this specialised kind of audience and with a tiny cast (most of whom are pictured to the left). Apart from the expected cuts and doubling of roles, there were a few other interesting innovations. When folks entered the theatre, each was handed a ribbon identifying them as one of the groups of elves named in Prospero's speech in Act V:

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves;
And ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune, and do fly him
When he comes back...

Each group of elves was assigned a sound effect to create the tempest at the start. The audience mostly consisted of school groups who were wildly enthusiastic in their recreation of the stormy night. It certainly engaged the young folks (and not a few of the older ones). The cast was lively and exuberant, only occasionally slipping into panto mode (one of my pet peeves about theatre for children). Ariel was amazingly athletic, swinging and climbing from the pole at the top of the stage. Miranda was a real firecracker, which isn't often the case. And of course, because it is in the open air of the park, magpies chattering at Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo as if they were the spirits of the island. A very good and sonorously voiced Prospero who managed the stage with authority and commanded the winds, the elves and all.

While the day had threatened rain, it never came except in the magic of the stage. An enjoyable day -- and yes, more to tell about this week, but again I must turn to other things. Anon...


Karen Walker said...

Sounds like a wonderful experience, once I'd like to have some day. I didn't get to the theater the one time I was in London, but have been to many Broadway shows. I'm betting it is not the same thing.

Anonymous said...

Here in Laguna Beach, CA, there is the Pageant of the Masters, where people dress up as characters in a famous picture or scene and stand perfectly still, blending in and fooling the audience.

The audience has to decide which character is the person. After a couple minutes, the person moves and gives themselves away. Its really cool how they do it.

Stephen Tremp

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

When I lived in London, I attended as many plays as I could and I can only think of two that I didn't particularly enjoy. I don't remember the Open Air Theatre. Maybe that came after I moved away, but it sounds like fun.

C. Margery Kempe said...

Karen -- my chief addiction in London is theatre. Broadway's not the same, not sure why. Part of it is the expense, although there's the half-price ticket booth there, too. It's less glitzy, more natural. You see bigger stars in smaller venues. There's a greater variety. Since Disney's taken over Times Square, everything's changed.

Stephen -- that sounds like a lot of fun!

Jane -- I think the Open Air is easy to miss, tucked away in the park like that. I checked the history page and find that they've been around since 1932. I've had some duds, too, but I have seen the most amazing plays often in very intimate houses. Wonderful!