All the world is a van: Shakespeare in a time of Covid

King Lear in a Van is a clever way of bringing theatre and drama to the masses

If you were loitering around Ely Place in Dublin recently you may have heard some worrying bellowing from the car park/loading bay of the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA). Don't worry, it was just King Lear, sitting on a yellow Ikea throne in the back of a converted van having it out with his daughters Cordelia, Regan and Goneril.

"Where we're rehearsing today is the first time we have had good acoustics," says Matthew Malone who plays Goneril, Regan, Gloucester and Kent in this production of King Lear in a van. "And Arthur is booming." King Lear is played by Arthur Riordan. "It's been a while since I've heard that. It's like the Abbey, this car park."

King Lear in a Van is the new offering from Festival in a Van which was devised at the outset of the pandemic by regular Irish Times contributor Gemma Tipton. King Lear is on the Leaving Cert this year and the team are available to perform at schools with help from the Bank of Ireland/Business to Arts Begin Together grant. Tipton has form with festivals. She ran the Kinsale Arts Festival and the Backwater Opera Festival. "I'd been writing about festivals closing down, talking to people who didn't know when they were going to work again," she says. "I thought, well, is there a way to do live performance safely?"

She had an epiphany and woke in the middle of the night saying: "Festival in a Van!" She enlisted production manager Rob Furey and production manager and health and safety expert Pete Jordan and, with financial support from Creative Ireland, they bought a van, hired two more vans and built sets that could be unfolded from them in just 10 minutes. "To start with," she says, "I thought, 'Oh, people won't want to be in a van.'"


She hadn't reckoned with how hungry performers were to perform and how hungry audiences were for live performance. They've worked with storytelling group Candlelit Tales, opera singers like Gavin Ring and drag performers like Avoca Reaction and arranged performances at schools, care homes, direct provision centres and housing estates. "One of the things that's been good about Covid is the forgotten spaces have been looked at again," says Tipton. "Who cared about care homes and direct provision centres?"

‘Heartbreakingly gorgeous’

She is now aware of a “map” of isolated care homes scattered all over the country and thinks there could be scope for projects like this to continue beyond the pandemic, bringing art and music to people that don’t always have access to it. Some of the experiences they’ve had, she says, have been “heartbreakingly gorgeous”. Furey recalls an 84-year-old former session musician moved to tears experiencing live music from the van. Tipton tells me about a letter she received from a woman who runs a care home after a performance by Gavin Ring. “She wrote saying ‘This is the only nice thing that’s happened in 12 months’, which also makes you realise how shitty it’s been for them.”

It all reminds me of Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, a postapocalyptic novel about a troupe of Shakespearian players touring America in the aftermath of a deadly pandemic. It turns out this was one of Tipton’s inspirations. “It’s one of my favourite books,” she says. “I find it quite hard to talk about Station 11 without crying because it’s so beautiful. It was one of the things I had in my mind when I started this up. I read it again in autumn and it was too close. It was much harder to read. [In Station Eleven] they start to do modern work, experimental plays and they realise that people want ‘true beauty’ so they stick to classical music and Shakespeare.”

The tiny cast are just finishing a run-through when I arrive. It's a shorter production with some parts synopsised. The actors break character from time to time to wonder at their character's choices. "It's nice to have the ability to move things along and to acknowledge that there are three performers here doing protean work playing all of the characters," says director Conor Hanratty. "We have all of the characters in there . . . except Oswald."

“If Oswald comes up as the question on the Leaving Cert this year we are sunk,” says Malone.

It's a wonderfully DIY production. At one point Karen McCartney asks production designer Fury if he can put another coat hook at the back of the foldout set to facilitate one of her swift costume changes. The set itself is a forest-scape painted by Tipton and some friends, and designed by the artist Katherine Beug.

“It nearly feels like we’re the vagabonds of old!” says Karen McCartney who plays Cordelia, The Fool, Regan and Edgar (“Though not all at the same time,” says Malone).

“It makes you realise with all these structures that we’ve built around performance that it’s still the people doing stuff that matters,” says Tipton. “It’s not your Grand Canal theatre. It’s not your fabulous foyer. It’s people doing stuff.”

“It’s the words that you rely on whether you’re in this van or a proscenium arch stage,” says Arthur Riordan.

They still have to socially distance. "No letters can be passed and you can't have the hug or the slap that some people seem to deserve," says Hanratty and everyone laughs. "I mean the characters not the actors."

Labelled throne

The photographer wants some action shots so Riordan repeats a bit where he attacks the yellow chair that stands in for his “throne”. “We might remove the Ikea label from the bottom of the chair,” says Tipton.

The photographer asks McCartney to react to Riordan’s behaviour melodramatically. She obliges. “You never need to give an actor a note about upstaging, especially this one,” says Hanratty.

They start rehearsing again. It’s lovely to see live theatre. A few people wander up to watch. A man who works in the RHA comes out and stands a few metres behind me watching. “I’m in the gods,” he whispers. There’s a man watching from the top floor of a building across the street. Karen McCartney’s mother Esther even pokes her head in for a while. “I was wondering how they were going to do it,” she says.

They have to be careful. During performances, they police a five-metre perimeter around the van at all times. The troupe travel with both a sound engineer and a Covid compliance officer. Tipton has become an expert on the regulations. “With Covid if you’re the occasion of a gathering it’s your fault,” she says. “It would have been lovely to park this at the canal or something [for rehearsals] but you’d have to stop if 15 people gathered . . . I’m now an authority on what has to happen at the different levels.”

There’s another short break. McCartney is moving her arms and legs dramatically. Are those acting exercises? “These are just my keeping myself warm exercises,” she says.

“I was going to say, ‘We don’t do that,’” says Malone. “That’s just Karen.”

The actors have been surviving over the past year on voiceover, film and online work but they really miss performing for a live audience. “Theatre doesn’t really happen unless there’s an audience really,” says Malone. “The thing isn’t complete.”

‘Open air’

“It’s pretty lovely to be outside,” says Hanratty. “If we’re going to be the school basketball court or wherever, we’re really just going to tell you a story. These plays were [originally] performed outside . . . bellowed to the open air . . . I find it very moving, even in these circumstances, that these performers can bring this play to people.”

They fantasise about what theatre will be like after the pandemic is over. “I was on a panel last month and the last question they asked was ‘What do you want to see [in theatre]?’ and I want to see things with 40 people!” says Hanratty.

McCartney wants something interactive. “I want to be out in the audience being crazy,” she says.

Malone wants to experience really long immersive plays. “I saw Angels in America all in one day over in London. It was a seven-hour experience. It was great. We were all crying by the end, everyone all on the same body clock.”

“All in this together,” says McCartney.

“Because that’s what theatre is for,” says Hanratty.

They’re also very aware that what they’re doing with the van might be some young person’s first experience of theatre. “And hopefully we’ll change the mind of someone who wasn’t into Shakespeare,” says McCartney.

“And you know there’s going to be one kid who sees this who is going to be like, ‘These are my people!’” says Malone.

What if it rains? "This is a play about bad weather," says Malone.

“It would be a bonus really,” says Riordan.

And Shakespeare has lines that resonate no matter what the era. McCartney recites a bit from the end of the play: “The weight of this sad time we must obey. Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. The oldest hath borne most. We that are young shall never see so much nor live so long.” She sighs. “There are always fresh things you can get from Shakespeare.”

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