When I first peered into the wonder that is Kents Cavern in Torquay, a prehistoric show cave to perform in Macbeth, I knew I’d fallen in love. I decided then, (I was very precocious at age 15), I would come back with my own company when I grew up and do it properly! And that is what I did. So fast forwarding we have done 3 different productions of Macbeth in Kents Cavern over the years and just celebrated our tenth anniversary of Macbeth. It is of course an obvious one in a cave with its candlelight passages, witches lurking in the shadows, murder plotting in the dark, haunting soundscapes. The audience get hounded around by the witches, carrying branches up the slope of Dunsinane “hill”, passing the stalagmite kingdom that is England, and revelling in tomorrow, tomorrow and tomorrow whilst being surrounded by rocks that have been standing for a zillion years. But Dream? DREAM? In a cave? No surely we need summer, and grass, and flowers, and picnics for Dream?
But do we? I looked at the text (I do all the editing. I will slip it in here in brackets so as not to offend you all too much. I cut the plays down to an hour (yes even Hamlet) in fact we have run hugely successful sell out lunchtime theatre at the Bridewell in Fleet St and the St James theatre with 45 minute Shakespeare. You can eat while you have your lunch then head back to work…but that’s for another article hey Richard?)
So it’s out now…I’ve come clean Butterfly do short Shakespeare. Our plays are promenade and the audience walk with us following the action so we can’t be too long. We totally use what is at our disposal in the various caves. We take no set. The set has been designed by nature and can’t be bettered. Our job is simply to respond fully to what is there. The structure, the weather, the temperature everything. The lighting or lack of it, tells a story, the space or lack of it tells a story…everything.
So when Titania says
“The spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world
By their increase now knows not which is which.”
These lines gave me my way in to putting Dream into the cave, (Pooles Cavern in Buxton this time) and also made me think about all our locations. Shakespeare’s words can be seen in different ways and his huge range of images often give us clues as to how we will set something somewhere. Though we don’t have sets we do consider props and costumes carefully, as they become incredibly important. My superbly talented designer, and now Executive Creative producer at Butterfly Kate McStraw, and I, scope out each venue and it’s the bit we most love. Where can we do various scenes? What is the best route round? Can someone climb up there or jump from there etc…We find natural stalagmite thrones and wonderful crevice balconies.
We don’t like to pretend we are anywhere other than where we are. So that sometimes needs a little conceit at the start to frame things, so we all have a reason to be in an actual cave. As the piece unfolds the audience become eavesdroppers, confidantes, guests at a balcony (who can see ghosts) and also soldiers and fairies as required. They sometimes become the fairy chorus or help us make the magic. Because we are in it together we tried find ways to connect with them. It is also a key philosophy behind the Gonsalves Method – attention and connection.
Because of the wonderful worlds Shakespeare conjures up, particularly in Dream it gives us huge license to be creative in the caves as we are all immersed in a magical unknown world. We tend to make the first Athens scene above ground somehow, then enter into the “woods” (next confession we edit the text but never change words …except…in Dream, in the caves. As it was too delicious to make it Through the “cavern” have I gone. One “rock” shall serve as pillow for us both etc…) I am sucker for a laugh, and it’s funny watching Hermia trying to keep her pristine pink frock from getting mud on it in a filthy cave and trying to get comfy on a spiky rocky! She usually sleeps on an audience member as a less painful pillow!!
Our sites are most often protected monuments. Kents Cavern is second in the country to Stonehenge as such and this makes us very aware of how privileged we are to be using them. Sometimes they have very precious no go areas in them but also they have very hardy, resilient, strong areas that can take Puck clambering on them…things don’t break easily, apart from possible heads! And Macbeth needs to watch banging his fists on banquet tables when they are made of solid limestone!
Acoustics in caves provide endless opportunities. The sounds of the words seem to hang in the air and it’s glorious to hear Shakespeare resonate around such an unusual acoustic. We use singing and soundscapes alot. Harmony singing works brilliantly particularly for creating fairy magic and you can use fabulous effects with torches and smoke (though we’ve had hilarious smoke problems as once you put too much dry ice into a cave something about the physics mean it can’t leave the cave and just multiplies itself.And when I say cave I mean the whole cave network. So if anyone thinks one squirt of the dry ice machine is too little, so adds another burst, we get a hanging fog through the whole piece – bizarrely atmospheric!) A cave can go from eerie and scary to mystical with just a bit of fairy lights and some harmonies and of course some magical Shakespeare text!
We try to utilise the space as well as we can and to differ the angles that the audience view things from. Each turn of the head provides a different backdrop as it’s a 360 environment so we like to keep the audience moves to a minimum but still explore the whole venue. And because we like to promenade we need to keep the audience engaged everytime we move, so that is a challenge. Puck is a great help with this…playing tricks, appearing and disappearing in unexpected places. We have to be very careful not to make the audience jump or step back suddenly as it’s a dangerous environment and because our whole intention with the Gonsalves Method is to make the audience feel real feelings that the actors are feeling it is a very intense experience. Intensely funny in the case of Dream and of course the mainstay of the laughs come from the Mechanicals.
In our cave shows the Mechanicals have been a pot holing crew – high viz jackets, helmets and useful head torches for extra lighting, then cave tour guides (free costumes always a win). The audience truly believe the lovers are lost as they themselves feel lost and disoriented. And as with my first Dream once peace and harmony gets restored we transform the Athens space during the show so now it’s full of light and love as everyone wakes up from the “Dream” and goes above ground to the real world.
Creating it for Letchworth Farm was another challenge. Our mechanicals became avid bird watchers and the lovers, gentleman farmers, but the greatest joy of that show was of course we had a real donkey for Bottom to play with…who was the biggest ass!
The language again gets illuminated so differently when you are in the open air and can hear, feel, smell (back to that donkey), nature all around you!
The way we work is to be highly responsive to everything in the moment. So that means, every sound, smell, sight, audience movement, reaction can be freely responded to, let alone the text and the other actors. Alive theatre, moment to moment…truly. We can do three shows back to back and each one lives entirely differently. The lines all stay the same but the moments are so different. For a start the audience always change position, reminding us just to respond, respond, respond to whatever truly happens in the moment. Our motto of discovery first is truly forced upon us. We can’t do anything else. But we and the audience discover there’s a great joy in not controlling everything!
Our most freeing and glorious location for Dream to date, has been an actual magical wood in the Forest of Dean. Puzzlewood is an ancient woodland and it has been seen in many films like Star Wars. I’ve included photos as it is beyond description and I’m no Shakespeare! It was such a perfect setting, confusing Puck with its beautiful purple flowers, the smell of wild garlic perfuming the air, the sunlight cutting through the branches at sun set as the fairies made up. Fairy music surrounding us as the audience followed a Tarzan like Puck as the actor flew around this playground he found himself in. Every reference made immediate sense and the audience revelled in these connections. And I was home.
Whether it’s The Tempest on fishing boats stranded in Leigh Woods as part of Luke Jerrams art installation, Glastonbury Abbey filled with love and grief in Romeo and Juliet…or countless other plays in other places. We have done thirteen shows a year for over six years as Butterfly and as we grow and start to spread our wings and fly I’m looking forward to sharing our adventures with you in this digital place.
No hiding anymore under costumes… I’m coming out.. to coin a phrase! My method is called the Gonsalves Method, My company is called Butterfly we do site responsive productions of mainly Shakespeare across the country, Germany and next stop the world! Our intention is to be creative equals, empowered actors who put discovery first and make the audience feel something real by the actor feeling something real and making a true connection with them, the place, the text, each other in the moment . Moment to moment truly – alive theatre. Actors theatre. Humans communicating heart to heart, using the words of the greatest heart opener of them all. Shakespeare.
[Editor: If your curiosity is whetted by this article, and you want to know more about Aileen Gonsalves, check out her first article for us at the following link: An Introduction to Aileen Gonsalves and The Dream]
Artistic Director, Butterfly Theatre, www.butterflytheatre.com
Directing Editor, Players-Shakespeare.com
Featured Photo at top: Leigh Woods, Bristol, The Tempest, (c) Elle de Burgh, 2016