Lincoln’s Inn is a slice of the past in the heart of the metropolis. Part medieval, part Tudor, part Victorian it is essentially a home to the upper echelons of the legal system and a fascinating place to visit. It was an even more fascinating place in which to perform the play version of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall especially as it was the stamping ground of one of the key characters -Sir Thomas More.
Following a two week residency at the Bridewell Theatre off Fleet Street, Tower Theatre took possession of the Old Hall at Lincoln’s Inn for a special one off performance on Monday 30th July. Part celebration, part fund raiser for the company’s newly acquired premises in Stoke Newington the day turned out to be a special one and a very memorable way to mark what is my 150th production across quite a few
The Old Hall, as you might suspect from the name, is, well, old and even the Lincoln’s Inn website acknowledges it as “the finest building in the Inn”. Full of intricate wooden carvings, heavy metal chandeliers, stained glass windows, portraits of the great and good and, at one end, a gigantic canvas by Hogarth it had atmosphere written all over it. The hall was originally constructed in the 1480s – though expanded since then – and was used both as a legal court and a dining hall; it’s most famous literary use was, perhaps as the setting for the opening of Dickens’ Bleak House. Most significantly it was often the setting for revels and masques; highly appropriate given the use to which it was about to be put. I got there relatively early and it was intriguing to watch others of the cast and crew arriving and drinking in the atmosphere in which they would later be performing. In an earlier blog I had aired some thoughts on site specific theatre and wasn’t, I admit, entirely complimentary. This, however, DID feel right and, even more than the previous twelve performances, I was anxious for it to go well.
However, practicalities first. Our time there began with arranging the seating in the hall itself. None of your fold up plastic chairs here – each had a substantial intricately carved wooden frame upholstered in blue leather with gold crests. Luxurious!
Then it was down into the crypt, part of which was to be used for the pre-show reception and part as our costume store/changing room. This was very narrow and cramped and was obviously normally used for bar supplies and catering equipment. Resisting the urge to crack open a bottle or two the costumes were racked and headdresses, shoes, jewellery and other personal props laid out. It was evident that we were going to have to change in relays and I made a mental note to ensure I was in the first tranche before the whole area became insufferably hot with heaving bodies.
Next we needed to run through the play and make any necessary changes. Principally this was to do with entrances and exits as we had to downsize from the three we had been using to just two. As this also necessitated manipulating very substantial (oak?) doors – and closing them again – we needed to adjust when we came on and how we left the stage. The other main difference was that the throne was no longer on a dais – we had to be particularly careful not to damage the rather expensive stone flooring we were working on. Surprisingly the changes were all accomplished pretty quickly and by the time we had finished our highly organised stage management team, led by the ever efficient Dinah, had laid out all the props in the alley behind the entrances. The one thing that was lacking was anywhere for the actors to congregate during the show while waiting to go on. This was solved by moving some chairs into Gatehouse Court next to the grassy area by the side of the Chapel. Thus we had a very real green room and it was in the open air. Bliss! The weight of some of the costumes had been taking their toll on participants during the heatwave (yours truly included) so this was an absolute boon.
Our guests started arriving at 6.30 and headed into the crypt for refreshments and to see a display about plans for the new Tower Theatre venue and the 24 actors started the process of getting into full Tudor regalia. Soon it was time to “bring up the bodies” and at 7.30 promptly we stood expectantly outside the entranceways listening to the pre-show announcement, the opening> music and then on we went. The entire cast appears in the opening sequence – I can only imagine how spectacular this must look from the audience’s point of view. My first main scene proper is some half hour in and as I don’t have any dialogue in this part I was able to drink in the atmosphere and take measure of the acoustics – very resonant.
The show itself seemed to go by much more quickly than before. Perhaps this is because we were all much more comfortable playing at speed and the backstage/outdoor conditions were so much more conducive than they had been. All seemed to go very smoothly. In fact the only hiccough I noticed was when the throne got tipped over by error in a scene in which Wolsey’s place is ransacked. Knowing that Henry VIII needed to sit on it fairly shortly I bided my time and replaced the chair surreptitiously – well as surreptitious as one can be manhandling a piece of furniture. But that’s it. Despite the strange venue there were no missed cues or word stumbles, no misbehaving props or costume malfunctions; just a tale told with pace, vigour and a great deal of audience warmth. They were particularly generous with their applause at the end and the overall feeling was that they both they, and we, had had a thoroughly good night out in a magnificent venue. We now have a couple of weeks off (one rehearsal aside) to gather our thoughts and think about the final leg of the production. This will be at another iconic landmark, the Minack open air theatre in Cornwall; more treats!