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Archive for the category “She Stoops to Conquer”

What this ‘ere play’s about…

Squire Hardcastle, from somewhere up north, is discovered snoozing in his favourite armchair by the fireside,

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He is dreaming, no doubt, of marrying off his charming but independent-minded daughter, Kate, to the son of his old friend, Sir Charles Marlow.  Such a liaison would serve the double purpose of finding Kate a wealthy husband whilst, at the same time,  moving the family a notch or two up the social ladder.

Enter Mrs Hardcastle, who is in love with “London and the fashions though I was never there myself.”  She does, however keep abreast of “all the tete-a-tetes from the ‘scandalous magazines”  She is  wearing an outrageous wig, which we learn she has fashioned herself “from a sketch in the “Ladies Memorandum Book for last year.”

She berates Mr Hardcastle about the fact that they live in “this rambling old mansion that looks for all the world like an inn, but that we never see company… and all our entertainment is your old stories about Prince Eugene and the Duke of Marlborough”.

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Mrs Hardcastle has been married before and had a son by her first husband, Mr Lumpkin.  Thanks to her somewhat imperfect parenting skills, Tony Lumpkin is a wild, roaring twenty-something who, according to his mother, was always too sickly to go to school.

Mr Hardcastle does not consider Tony to be a valuable addition to the family, but Mrs Hardcastle, who is keeping a considerable fortune in jewels in trust for her niece, Constance, is very keen to engineer a marriage between Tony and Constance so that the fortune stays in the family.

To the despair of both of his parents, Tony’s sole interests in life are drinking with the yokels in the local ale-house and lusting after the voluptuous “Bet Bouncer of these parts.”

The plot is set to thicken.

 

 

Open air theatre, don’t you just love it?

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.

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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.

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And so the play got underway.

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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….”

No Kate.

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.

Stooping in the Rain?

When we got to the open air theatre yesterday evening, the first thing we had to do was to dismantle what was left of our backstage gazebo, where we are supposed to sit whilst waiting to go on stage.  The wind had been so strong that it had sheared one of the bolts that held the roof together, rendering the whole thing liable to tear itself to shreds, if left to face the wind in its severely weakened state.

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Fortunately, there were enough willing thespians on hand to carry out the work before the roof blew away.

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With my faithful servant, Diggory, ‘whom I have advanced from the barn’, making his own unique contribution.

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The storm clouds were gathering as we donned our costumes, but the audience just kept arriving, all equipped with picnics, rugs, anoraks, and various items of arctic clothing. About 120 people sat through the evening enthusiastically laughing and generally making us feel that our chattering teeth were still able to deliver some of the lines correctly.

We were rewarded with warm and generous applause at the end, but we were too cold to do more than one quick bow, before fleeing for the warmth of the hut that served as our dressing room.

The weather forecast for this evening is less than encouraging.  My guess is that the show will, in true theatrical tradition, go on, but I think it will be a pretty damp affair.  Only crazy people, with good waterproofs, will turn up to watch.  But this is Brighton, so who knows?

Tomorrow, if the weather forecast is to be believed,  I think we will be wise to abandon the theatricals and divert our energies to building an ark.  Whether or not our last performance will take place as planned on Sunday is firmly in the lap of the rain gods and the management of the Brighton Open Air Theatre.

Whatever floats your BOAT.

A breath of fresh air.

There are a number of challenges associated with performing a play in the open air.  The one that occupies the front of your mind is the possibility of rain.   But for the last three months we have been watching the cloudless skies in Brighton and worrying that the reservoirs must be running dry.  Rainfall in May and June was minimal.  The first part of July was pretty dry too.  But now?

The weather forecast for the next few days is for heavy rain interspersed with less heavy rain.  Well, that’ll be fun!

Moving from the tiny stage of the Brighton Little Theatre to the enormous apron stage of the Brighton Open Air Theatre was a challenge in itself.

For example, only the bare minimum of furniture and props could be transported from one to the other and, once the stage had been vacuumed …

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… they were laid out on the stage.

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As you can see from the photo above, we now have acres of space to fill, not only on the stage, but also in the amphitheatre. (At the back of this photo you can see the houses on one of the busiest roads into and out of Brighton!)

Next, we needed to create a lighting and sound box to house all of the ‘techie’ stuff.

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It was fortunate that we had a good number of servants and villagers to accomplish this.  It was really not the sort of thing that I, as Mr Hardcastle of Hardcastle Hall, or my friend Sir Charles, would like to get involved with.

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Fortunately, they were stalwart chaps and made a very good fist of it.  Salt of the earth really!

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Then, of course, the whole play had to be ‘re-blocked’- as we thespians call it!  At the Little Theatre, you could cross from one side of the stage to the other in three paces.  At the BOAT we have more space than we know what to do with, so we have to try and use it to best advantage.

And then there is the small matter of voice projection. We are all praying that there isn’t a stiff wind blowing from the sea for this evening’s opening night.  If there is, there could be a lot of shouting going on.

And then, of course, what happens to the actors when they are not on stage or are waiting to come on?  Well that’s where the self-assembly gazebo and the camping chairs come in.

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Well, a gentleman has to have somewhere to keep his wig!

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Wish me a broken leg!

 

What goes around comes around.

Like many a new undergraduate in 1972, I found myself faced with the prospect of finishing my degree and having to go out into the big bad world to start some kind of a career. I would finish university with a degree in German, but the one thing of which I was certain was that I didn’t want to become a teacher.

I had done some amateur teaching as a language assistant in Germany during the third year of my course and had enjoyed it immensely.  It gave full rein to the show-off within me.  Indeed I can still remember the two comments from the senior staff at the school where I was ‘assisting’.   One was from my mentor, the Head of the English Department, who wrote in her report on my year’s work  ‘Mr Nicholls has outstanding pedagogical ability.’

The other was from one of the senior English teachers, a burnt-out and grumpy older man, who insisted that I taught his class of fourteen-year-olds British History, despite my protestations that History was the one GCE that I had failed, with flying colours!  Having no knowledge about British History and finding the idea that I should be teaching it to anyone quite ridiculous, I decided to base my lessons on the silly stories and legends that 900 years of history inevitably contains.

So I did lessons on shivering Romans in sandals and short togas on Hadrian’s Wall, King Alfred burning his cakes, Bodecea and her chariots with knives on the wheels, and, eventually, Wellington thrashing Boneparte at the battle of Waterloo.  (My lesson about this  latter story particularly upset the English teacher, because it made no mention of the crucial role played by General Bluecher, who, in a feat of engineering genius and outstanding bravery,  took his entire army across the Rhine in small boats to come to the aid of Wellington, thereby turning impending defeat into a stunning victory.  The reason I hadn’t mentioned Bluecher’s contribution to the victory was because I knew next nothing about the subject in the first place.  British school text books don’t mention the contribution of foreigners unless we defeated them. Well, I did warn him!)

That teacher’s unforgettable comment on my year-long contribution to his English class was “If  Mr Nicholls could resist the temptation to turn all of his lessons into cabaret performances, he might turn out to be a half decent teacher.”

So on leaving university, I knew I could teach but the prospect of going from school to university and then back into school filled me with horror, so I faced the end of my final year at Manchester University with some trepidation. And then I saw the poster for VSO that said “It’s better to light a candle than complain about the dark,” and I few months later I was landing at Khartoum Airport at the start of my first two-year VSO stint.

I was assigned to work as an English teacher at the Higher Teachers’ Training Institute in Omdurman.  I was put in charge of a language laboratory, (remember those?) and given some English Literature classes.  Imagine teaching ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ to a group of Sudanese young women who were all studying Home Economics so that they could become the consorts of Sudanese diplomats!  The cabaret continued. Great fun ensued.

The problem was that The Sudan was going through a politically turbulent time on its downward progress to the parlous state in which it now finds itself. As a consequence of that, my Institute was on strike more often than it was open.

For a VSO volunteer that sort of thing is a disaster, because you are a long way from home in a strange country and no raison d’etre at all.  You also can’t travel because you have to be available just in case the students decide to go back to work. The result:  crushing boredom and mounting frustration.

And then I saw another poster, this time for the Khartoum Repertory Company, an amateur group of thespians, based on the unashamedly expatriate Sudan Club.

I joined and took part in several theatrical extravaganzas before the suggestion was made that I should direct a play.  My directorial debut was the unforgettable 1973 performance, which is, I am sure, even today, the talk of Khartoum town  –  Ta-dah…..

 

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OK, I admit, it wasn’t the most professional poster you have ever seen, but hey, this was Khartoum in 1973, so give me a break!

It was clear that I wasn’t the only expatriate who had time on his hands.  We had a set builder who transformed the open-air stage into a down-at-heel country house that was itself transformed into an inn or a garden by the removal or addition of a few flats.

Finding actors was also not difficult.  I managed to cast the Head of the British Council as the country squire, Mr Hardcastle, and his deputy as the lovelorn, if rather duplicitous gentleman, Mr Marlowe.

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Mr Hardcastle berates his daughter, Kate, about her unnecessarily flamboyant dress.  “I could never teach the fools of this age that the indigent world could be clothed out of the trimmings of the vain!”

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Poor Mr Marlowe is too shy and bashful to speak to ladies of high degree, although he is perfectly able to be free with “ladies of another stamp, you understand me!”  He has come to court Mr Hardcastle’s daughter.

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Mr Hastings, Mr Marlowe’s partner in courtship, who seeks the hand of Miss Hardcastle’s cousin, Constance, flatters Mrs Hardcastle in the hope of separating her from the jewels which she is holding until her niece, Constance, marries her son by her first husband, Tony Lumpkin, thereby keeping the money in the family.  ( I hope you are following this.  It gets worse!)

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Mrs Hardcastle, believing that she is lost upon the heath and that her husband is a murderous highwayman, pleads for her life and the life of her errant son, Tony, who has caused all the mischief.  (Note: This scene is supposed to be in the middle of the night somewhere on the Hardcastles’ country estate, not in the drawing room, but the ‘Lost on the heath’ backdrop didn’t come down, and nor did the lights.  So everyone carried on regardless.  True pros!)

So why am I telling you all this?  Well, it is a shameless, and somewhat wordy advertisement for the forthcoming highlight of Brighton’s summer cultural calendar.  Drum roll, please… Ta-dah

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The difference this time is that the play is directed by someone who knows what she is doing and that Brighton Little Theatre has someone who can produce a decent poster.

The other difference is that I’m not directing, I’m playing the part of Mr Hardcastle.

Gotta go – lots of lines to learn.

 

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