It’s three weeks since the government announced artistic venues in England could perform outdoors again, with strict measures against Covid-19.
This week, the Watermill in Berkshire becomes the first English theatre to open a new play commissioned and rehearsed since the restrictions were relaxed. The cast of three worked at superfast speed to recreate one of literature’s best-known characters.
The Watermill is one of Britain’s most distinctive theatres, in a quiet location in Berkshire with the River Lambourn at its door. The 220-seat auditorium remains for now out of bounds as theatre tries to decide what theatrical social distancing should look like.
It’s a tough question, which might even baffle the brain of Sherlock Holmes.
But audiences of 80 can now take their socially-distanced seats outside in the attractive gardens, to sit at tables and watch a good-natured version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1902 Holmes yarn The Hound of the Baskervilles. The cast of three swap hats with enthusiasm and tumble through the story, not always taking it as reverently as Sir Arthur might have liked.
In recent weeks in England there’s been a sprinkling of open-air music evenings and one-person shows, at venues like the well-known Minack theatre in Cornwall. But the Watermill decided to defy the doubters who said rehearsing a cast in a new show was impossible, other than on Zoom.
Emily Moseley, the producer, admits the venue’s lucky to have attractive outdoor spaces which are generally disturbed by nothing noisier than quacking ducks.
“Not every theatre has that and we can let our audiences be socially distant. Victoria Blunt, Rosalind Lailey and James Mack are all performers we like and who’d worked at the Watermill before: We knew we needed people used to being here. Amazingly they produced a new text and had the whole thing on its legs in about 10 days.”
Inevitably, the process of building the play started with people at home on Zoom. After that, Moseley says the cast and production team were happy to move to a real live rehearsal space at the theatre.
“People think that’s now difficult but if you stick to the rules we’ve all learnt anyway it’s not so bad. There are basic things like having lots and lots of hand sanitiser and one-way systems.
“The rehearsal room was divided up into one metre squares and people had to keep to that. That’s reflected now in how we marked off the lawns for the public. We haven’t tried to disguise the fact that the temporary stage is also divided up with red tape on the floor.”
She added: “I think it’s something audiences will just accept and we make a few references to it in the script.”
‘It shows what can be done’
The new play is directed by Abi Pickard Price. “The first two days on Zoom turned out a good way to get a script together,” she explained. “Usefully Conan Doyle tells a lot of his story in dialogue which formed the skeleton of what we created.
“Then in the rehearsal room it was remarkable how quickly we got into the flow of moving around each other.
“Of course it was a fairly small cast but it shows what can be done if your rehearsal process is well worked out.”
Abi says she is delighted to be directing once more. “It’s been a scary few months with everyone thinking, ‘Will we have jobs to return to?’
“I did, in fact, direct one thing online during lockdown and I learnt from it. But it’s not the same as being with people in a room, which is what theatre is about.
“It was a magic moment to feel that finally I was creating again with other people around me.”
The show is already pretty well sold out but the Watermill is well advanced with its next open-air production – the epic Broadway musical Camelot, first produced in 1960. This time they’ve gone for a cast of 10.