It takes a special kind of actor to be heard comfortably in an open air venue. Some mistake the skill of projection with shouting which, to be honest, is as tiring for the spectator as the person ‘on stage’.
There are myriad other threats that can disrupt a performance just because of the locale. I once saw peacock steal the show at Holland Park when a poor soprano was trying to put over her big aria. The bird had a bigger voice and more spectacular frock. A production of a Beckett play outside the Barbican Centre in London had two tramps vying with the antics of a coot doing the aquatic equivalent of strutting on a pond behind them.
Mind you, being in a theatre is no guarantee that wildlife will not find their way in. I once witnessed a possum completely upstage a performance of a Feydeau farce by defecating and urinating from the lighting rig. I heard of a similar hijacking of Jack Hibberd’s A Toast to Melba when a rat stopped atop a scenery flat to take in the action. He so successfully pulled focus that the humans were hardly mentioned during the interval. King Lear With Sheep made a virtue of the beastly invasion – the actor was never really meant to have a chance.
But let us go outside again. What about the elements? No-one is really in control of them. Two productions of King Lear within five days brought different clashes with the weather.
An earlier start in the garden at St John’s College, Cambridge might have allowed cast and audience all to go home undamp. It was odd that the king, Kent, the Fool and Edgar in the guise of poor Tom remained bone dry during the storm scenes.
When Gloucester arrived at Dover, things took a turn for the worse. A light rain began to fall and, with varying intensity, kept up until the proverbial curtain fell. Not one audience member abandoned the show, which was an act of solidarity with the increasingly sodden actors. Sadly, the poignancy of the closing scene was undercut: people hung in there under umbrellas, but the cast were up against it without protection.
The wooden O that is Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre is both charming and disarming. The Lord Chamberlain’s - later the King's, - Men had plenty to deal with from the pit, now a rather attentive and sedate lot, and the racket that attended nearby bear baiting on the banks of the Thames. But they would certainly have been thrown by what now leaks in from above. There are the pigeons, of course, which one assumes visited performances in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Overflying aircraft can challenge even the best trained voice and the inevitable helicopter which seems to hover just over the theatre wins every time.
But my visit, four days after a soggy departure from Cambridge, contended with another seasonal aspect. The sun shone brightly and bare arms, a foolish virgin’s mistake in not bringing sun block, had to be covered with a light jumper. Slight discomfort was better than burning. I had sunglasses to hand and ushers gave out paper caps to the audience while actors went about their business on stage.
These are relatively minor inconveniences. Actors have the burden of the play on top of all that, and in both cases they rose to the challenge. No wonder so much advice is offered them. They must have many answers to Kent’s question that opens Act III, ‘Who’s there, besides foul weather?’