The problem with open air theatre in Britain is … that it’s in the open air and therefore at the mercy of the British weather.
On the Friday evening of our run of She Stoops to Conquer at the Brighton Open Air Theatre, (BOAT), it started to rain quite steadily during the second half but, undaunted, we kept going and the audience stayed with us. Everyone on both sides of the non-existent footlights got wet, but nobody seemed to mind. On Saturday we were supposed to be doing two performances, one at 2.00pm, the other at 7.00pm.
We assembled at the theatre as instructed at just before 1.00 pm and, cruelly, the sky was threatening but the rain was holding off. So, we set up the lights, erected the control tent to protect the lighting and sound technician and her equipment, set the stage and got into our costumes, so that we could be locked away in the hut before the audience started to arrive. At 2.00pm, right on cue, we started the play with the opening country dance and the Prologue. What professionals!
About ten minutes later, it started to rain, not heavily, but rain nonetheless. We sturdy thespians were undeterred. We snapped our fingers at the gathering clouds. Ha! The show must go on!
Then it became a game of chicken between us and the elements. Guess who won?
After about 40 minutes the director came backstage where a couple of us were waiting for our cue lines with the rain dripping from our chins and asked if we were prepared to continue. We said that we were, if the audience were prepared to sit there in their wet weather gear and watch us. After all, they had paid money to see this play. What’s a bit of rain one way or the other?
The play continued for another five minutes and then the decision was taken out of our hands. Reports from the other side of the wall where the sodden onlookers were sitting told us that the rain was now so heavy that, however loudly we declaimed, the poor audience couldn’t hear us over the noise of the rain drumming on their umbrellas. The decision was taken to abandon the show and cancel the evening performance as well.
It was announced to the dripping crowd, that tickets for the Saturday performances would be valid for the final show on Sunday afternoon and everyone went home.
The following day, as if embarrassed by its behaviour on the Saturday, the weather behaved itself impeccably. The costumes were dragged out into the sunshine to dry.
Even some of the actors were allowed out of the hut to soak up the sun before scurrying back inside as the audience, with their picnic baskets and bottles of wine, started to arrive.
And so the play got underway.
What could possibly go wrong? Funny you should ask!
The young woman who played the part of my daughter, Kate, didn’t look well when she arrived at the theatre. Unfortunately, her role in the play is quite crucial as she is the one who actually ‘stoops to conquer’. She takes on the role of a serving maid in order to capture the heart of Mr Marlow, the rich and eligible bachelor pictured above. Mr Marlow has a major social failing in that he becomes cripplingly shy in the presence of woman of a higher social order.
(Actually, viewed in the cold light of day, Mr Marlow is something of a monster. He is quite willing to seduce any woman of a lower social standing and when challenged by his friend, Hastings, about robbing a serving wench of her honour defends himself by saying:
“Pshaw! Pshaw! We all know the honour of the barmaid of an inn. I don’t intend to rob her, take my word for it. There’s nothing in this house I shan’t honestly pay for.”
I’m not sure that there was much gender awareness around in 1773.)
Anyway, back to Kate. As I said, she looked terrible when she arrived but went on stage for her first few scenes and no-one would have known there was anything wrong with her. She switched brilliantly into character and carried the story on with full vigour.
Then came the scene where I, as the grumpy squire, Mr Hardcastle, have a long ‘aside’ to the audience in which I complain about Mr Marlow’s insolent behaviour towards me, including the fact that he has taken possession of my easy chair by the fireside! The speech ends with the words “I am desirous to know how his insolence affects my daughter. She will certainly be shocked at it.!”
My next line was supposed to addressed to my daughter as she comes on from the back of the stage to join me at the front.
“Well, my Kate, I see you have changed your dress as I bid you….”
Whatever bug had caused her to look so ill before the show had tightened its grip on her and made it impossible for her to continue..
A few minutes of frantic ad-libbing ensued before my new ‘daughter’, now in modern dress and some thirty years older, came on stage with the script and read in the lines. It was in fact the director who happened to backstage just at the right moment.
As I said, the show must go on!
During the interval, my new daughter donned the costume of my original daughter and, script in hand, played the part through until the end. The audience suspended its disbelief a bit further and their applause at the end was generous and fulsome. They had had a great afternoon despite, or perhaps because of, our distress.
But, hey! It’s live theatre. Anything can happen.