A Midsummer night’s cacophany

An Irishman’s Diary about Shakespeare (and movies) in the park

It’s good to squawk: like hecklers from the cheap seats in an Elizabethan theatre. Photograph: Alan Betson

It’s good to squawk: like hecklers from the cheap seats in an Elizabethan theatre. Photograph: Alan Betson

Sun, Jul 27, 2014, 15:23

There was a moment of unintended comedy at the open-air performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Dublin Castle on Thursday night, provoked by the bit near the end where Puck gestures at the sky and says: “I do hear the morning lark.”

It was not morning, and there were no larks up there. But there were plenty of seagulls, hence the audience laughter. In fact, the show had been accompanied until then by a more or less continuous soundtrack of squawking.

Sometimes the squawks were like isolated heckles from the cheap seats. Occasionally the gulls squawked in harmony, suggesting a tone-deaf version of the Vienna Boys’ Choir. And as the cast heroically ignored them throughout, it made you wonder if indoor theatres don’t overdo their pre-show warnings about such minor distractions as mobile phones.

It is of course social death if your phone so much as bleeps during a performance at the Gate or the Abbey. Whereas, in the Castle gardens on Thursday, you could probably have conducted a three-way conference call with your stockbroker in New York and shareholders in Sydney without unduly disturbing anyone around you.

As it was, the seagulls seemed to have a disinhibiting effect on a group of tourists in front of us, who spent much of the show conversing cheerfully in Spanish. But if the actors heard it, they shrugged this off too. And anyway, in having to compete with raucous surroundings, they were only returning to the origins of Shakespearian theatre, when audiences were a lot ruder than today.

Before this week, I think, the last time I had attended any open-air Shakespeare in Ireland was about seven or eight years ago, in Fitzgerald Park, Cork. That too had avian issues, as I recall, although not seagulls.

The play was The Tempest, and the stage was an island in the park’s lake, which doubled as the storm-tossed Adriatic Sea: an effect undermined slightly when some local ducks landed on it, mid-scene, with contemptuous calm. Still, that was a minor inconvenience, considering all the other risks you take with an outdoor show in Ireland, and especially with a play called The Tempest.

There was no danger of tempests in Dublin Castle. Dehydration was a bigger risk because, unusually for a theatre – even a makeshift one – the venue didn’t have a bar. But then again, an Irish heatwave is always a big learning experience for everyone involved.

You could nearly call it “summer school”. And among the other modules on Thursday last, I had a powerful vision of what it must be like to live in a Mediterranean country (theatre audiences conversing in Spanish only heightened the effect).

Strolling home from Dublin Castle, as night fell but the temperatures remained balmy, we followed unusual noises from the direction of our venerable neighbour, the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, aka IMMA. Minutes later, we had joined a thousand other people sitting on the side of a hill, in the grounds’ meadow, which had been transformed into an outdoor cinema.

The film was Labyrinth, a weird musical fantasy from 1986, starring David Bowie. We were an hour late for the start and, like Bowie’s hair, the plot was all over the place. But it didn’t matter.

The view from the RHK meadow across the Liffey valley into the Phoenix Park is pleasant at any time. As an excuse to sit on grass, near midnight, and admire it, the film was as good as any other. We could have been on holiday in southern France, or Italy. All that was missing was the sound of cicadas.

Mind you, by 11.30pm, I did have to lower my rolled-up shirtsleeves, and then fasten the top button, and then slightly regret not having brought a jacket.

So maybe this is the sort of thing that should be covered at summer school, alongside advice on how to avoid Irish sun tan, how to swim safely in canal locks, and the question of when is a respectable time of day to be seen drinking pints outside The Barge in Portobello.

None of which subjects will be covered at IMMA’s continuing Summer Rising festival, of which the outdoor cinema was part. Today’s family programme (full details at www.imma.ie) does, however, promise to be extremely educational, with workshops on butter-making, seaweed cookery, and fish-smoking. A big human attendance is expected. I predict there’ll be seagulls too.

@FrankmcnallyIT

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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