If there’s one thing the English know how to do, it’s to persevere with our plans despite the rain. Not only do we carry on; we welcome rain and storms to the party, bolster our good cheer and say “we’ll have an even better day – and a story to tell afterwards!” Yes, ‘bad’ weather brings out the best in us, the English appetite for something to fight against, for a bit of drama. It brings out the storyteller. The romantic.
So, I could not have been more pleased to discover that Romantics, the new production from Pale Fire theatre company, was forging ahead with its performances in the gardens of Keats House despite the heavy rain forecast throughout the first weekend of its run. I had been excited anyway about seeing the show, having heard all about the production from its director James Veitch, but now that it had become an event threatened by adverse weather conditions? Even better. I wasn’t enormously pleased about having to wear unsightly waterproofs to the theatre, I must say, but don them I did, and I journeyed to Keats House on Saturday afternoon under a sky as black as the ace of spades.
The house looked stunning, especially against the dark sky: a chalky white, hushed palace with large windows, lush green lawns and gravel paths curving around it. The rain held off as the audience arrived and set up their waterproof rugs and began their optimistic picnics. No part of the garden was under shelter, apart from one small patch with a canopy, under which a cellist (Tatiana Judycka) was setting up. Mutterings between groups on the lawn confirmed a general nervousness about what the performers and we would do should the rain come down as punishingly as anticipated.
How appropriate this nervousness was. A heightened awareness of our vulnerability at the hands of nature, of the risks posed by our unprotected setting, was exactly the right sensation to have during a dramatisation of the poetry, prose and letters of the Romantic poets. “Much of Romantic poetry is informed by and preoccupied with nature,” James had said, when I asked him what had inspired him to stage the show outside in the garden. “Audiences of Romantics will hear odes to the skylark and the nightingale, the tiger and the daffodil. It only seems fair that the audience is outdoors to experience sensations similar to those which the poets felt. Romantic poetry celebrates the sensations; Keats declared ‘o, for a life of sensations rather than of thoughts’; the breeze that rustles the trees, the squirrel that darts up the tree are just as much a part of the show as the actors, text and music.”
Indeed, the six clever young performers played with their environment much as they would an instrument or prop, weaving in and out of the trees and people, using the full dimensions of the garden, amplifying or softening their voices according to the levels of rain and wind – even adding a line here and there to make reference to the weather. The cast dove in and out of the roles of Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats, Byron, Burns, Browning, the Shelleys and friends, in a script devised by James that draws out the much-loved poetry and the relationships and comparisons between the poets, played out in a mischievous, tongue-in-cheek style. A boyish competition between Byron and Burns to compose the ultimate love poem, for example, had the audience sniggering from beneath their umbrellas – particularly the ladies in the audience to whom the actors directed their romantic odes.
The spirited, witty production celebrates the youthful vitality characteristic of the Romantic poets. “I love how ambitious they were,” James told me. “How precocious, daring and often juvenile. Much of their finest work was created when they were teenagers. Lots of angst. Lots of posing. Deep insecurities. And beneath lies an earnest wish to change the world, to articulate the human condition.” And that’s exactly what is reflected in the script and direction: young people larking about, falling in love, teasing each other, growing up, experimenting, but at the same time creating arrestingly beautiful and insightful poetry.
The audience is encouraged to feel free and relaxed in the garden along with the performers, to become part of the high jinks. The informal setting means that the poetry just happens all around you as you relax on the lawn. “Staging the show outside and encouraging the audience to picnic alleviates the pressure to interpret every moment of the play,” said James. “The audience can dip in and out as they wish; they may not hear everything, sections may be whispered to just them. They may find themselves listening to a line of poetry one moment, lying on the lawn gazing at the sky, listening to the sound of the trees, with not a thought in their head the next. It’s the difference, I think, between sitting down to a three-course set menu and spending an age lazily snacking from a variety of tapas.”
James is very interested in how theatre is consumed, and in particular how the setting can influence both the content and the audience’s reaction. His recent production in New York, Room 103, Hotel Chelsea, was entirely inspired by the hotel itself. “Bob Dylan wrote Blonde on Blonde in one of its rooms, Dylan Thomas lived and died there, Sid Vicious murdered Nancy Spungen in room 103. Yet, despite its beauty and history, tourists weren’t allowed past the lobby; what a shame! Besides, there’s nothing more intimate than a hotel room. When we came to rehearsing in the space, we would key in to room 103 before the maid had been. The room, then, was like a set for a play no-one had yet struck. I wanted to explore the intimacy that only the hotel room can invoke; grant the audience a coveted, clandestine view inside and tell the story of its inhabitants.”
It’s also what the audience brings to the performance that fascinates James and informs his choice of setting. “Beatles producer George Martin once commented, ‘If you believe as I do that a house has atmosphere capable of absorbing the personalities and emotions of its inhabitants, you will have no difficulty in appreciating the unique quality of Abbey Road,’ and I believe something of the same can be said for Keats House. It is not, however, that the house has ‘absorb[ed]’ past inhabitants but rather, far more beautifully, that visitors cannot help but endow the place with ‘personalities’ and ‘emotions’. An audience seeing a play about the Romantics on the very ground they walked generates a subjective electricity, an intensity and commingling of emotion that feeds the actors’ performances.”
Indeed, as our eyes and ears followed the six performers around the lawn for the 90 minutes of Romantics, it did feel as though they were feeding off the reactions and characters in the audience, working intuitively with our responses to the poetry and to the unsteady weather. And even when a sudden blast of wind threatened to drag their voices and our umbrellas up into the air above the house and away from us, they reacted and belted out the lines with even more heart.
Of course, you never know what nature will throw at the production you attend. I got rain and wind thrown at mine on Saturday, and it seemed entirely fitting. But I’ve no doubt that it will always seem fitting, given the way in which the cast and the material itself adapt the dynamics of their garden frolics to incorporate moody and petulant nature, the ultimate Romantic.
Romantics, Keats House, Keats Grove, Hampstead, London NW3 2RR. Box Office: 0800 411 8881. Website. Performances: Saturday 23 July: 3pm and 7pm, Sunday 24 July: 3pm, Saturday 30 July: 3pm and 7pm, Sunday 31 July: 3pm.