Cue: storm scene ... the heavens open on Britain's outdoor theatricals

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The Independent Online
It's an ill wind ... the open-air theatre season has opened to the most unseasonable weather in living memory. But not everyone is counting the cost.

"Our only covered area is the bar area," explains Jacqui Gellman of the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park, London. "When we have had to stop performances, we ask the audiences to wait in the bar, while we decide whether we can carry on. Actually, the bar has done a roaring trade this summer."

South of the Thames at the Globe, the groundlings, exposed to the elements, have bought up the entire stock of 800 plastic macs at pounds 5 a time.

Open-air theatre this stormy season has demanded the water-proof as a fashion accessory. But if you can't find the designer label, then improvise. That's what they have been doing at the Ludlow Festival, where Shakespeare is played in the grounds of the eponymous castle in Shropshire.

"The audiences have been wearing black dustbin liners," says Anthony Baynon, the administrator. "You put them over your head and cut a hole for your face. Looking out from the stage you see rows and rows of them."

At Britain's most dramatically placed open-air theatre, the Minack, 100 feet up on the edge of a Cornish cliff overlooking the Atlantic, near Land's End, props flew around in the gales as the cast tried to recreate sub- tropical brightness for their production of The Arabian Nights. Fortunately, Shaw's The Devil's Disciple is also in repertory there, and that at least refers to a storm scene. The audience, slowly sinking into the waterlogged grass- terrace seats, had the storm in stereo. Stage hands played taped storm effects while the real thing raged around them.

But the real devil to play has been Shakespeare, the staple of British open-air theatre, who loved to set his love scenes on sultry Italian nights or in dappled forests.

"They're such summery costumes," sighs Anthony Baynon at Ludlow, where they have been performing Much Ado About Nothing. His cast should count their blessings. At Regent's Park, for A Midsummer Night's Dream, Helena and Hermia have had to strut in corsets and bloomers. "There's one scene where the four lovers huddle together on the ground," said Ms Gellman. "As the weather has got worse they have been huddling more closely ... but when it's been really bad we've put a blanket on the ground."

At Regent's Park they have spent more on dry-cleaning costumes than in any other season, and they've needed an extra coat of paint for the fairies' boots.

But for all the incongruity of theatre in torrential rain and cold winds, only a handful of performances around Britain have been stopped. The rain has led to a "strange and stronger bonding" between actors and groundlings at the Globe, according to staff there. The actors are simply so grateful the audience has remained.

At one performance of Henry V, Matthew Scurfield, who plays the Duke of Exeter, leant down from the stage to brush drenched hair out of the face of a spectator. At another, Mark Rylance, playing the King, was speaking the St Crispin's Day speech exhorting his army to stand and fight. As one or two stragglers began to leave in the downpour, he aimed his lines directly at them:

"And gentlemen in England now abed

Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap..."

The stragglers stayed.

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