An Ideal Hustband in rehearsal in Magdalen Gardens
The summer sun peeks bravely from behind a cloud; warmth spreads, slow and lazy over the quads and gardens; undergraduates awake. Just imagine it hasn’t been raining. Just imagine we’re back in the heady days of third week. Just imagine.
Summer brings garden shows as surely as it brings exams. Whether you’re coughing up lung- fulls of library dust or blinking awake from an afternoon nap, Cherwell under your head, drama in the sun is the perfect way to spin out a langorous evening.
There are few things more quintessentially Oxfordian, and most of them (Pimm’s and picnics, if not punting) can be combined with a good play. And a healthy dose of a production such as The Tempest does more than give you an opportunity to avoid reading or scraping together a last- minute essay.
This is a guilt-free escape. This is art. You’re growing as a person. You’re getting cultural.
And we all know that Trinity must be savoured. There is no better way of drinking in the unique flavour of an Oxford summer than at a garden play. There’s no better way of drinking in the unique flavour of a G&T than at a garden play.
Garden plays are an inherently social event. we go there to hang out with friends, to show our new significant other just how culturally aware we are, to see and be seen.
Clare Bucknell, who produced this year’s Magdalen Garden Show, putting on a truly excellent production or Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, has a warning or two, however.
‘The English summer is utterly unsuited to garden plays, insofar as it is always unpredictable and usually dreadful’, she points out. We seem to be snapped back into reality, wrenched from reverie by the ominous rumble of thunder.
But the very sense of danger can be a benefit. Bucknell claims ‘drama is a risky business, and so is the English summer. The combination of the two begins as a serious undertaking, and ends as a thrilling gamble.’
The very lack of predictability makes for some quite spectacular productions, made more spectacular still because everybody involved recognises that the endeavour is balanced on the whim of fate.
If the weather can not only detract, but even add to the aura of an Oxford garden, surely the splendid setting is no such poison chalice. ‘An audience ought to feel displaced from the run of its usual experience, and old buildings help to achieve that suspension of disbelief’, Bucknell confirms.
Magdalen’s uniquely beautiful surroundings contributed magnificently to An Ideal Husband’s success. But Bucknell adds, with a smile, ‘That said, contemporary theatre would be an entirely different story; and I have personally learnt that a college whose unfeasibly loud bells ring out every fifteen minutes may be more of a distraction than a setting.’
Oh well. You take the good with the bad.
Krishna Omkar is directing the Merton Garden Show. Another Wilde play, this time The Importance of Being Earnest, Omkar believes that garden shows ‘not only brings out the most creative and inventiveside of student drama but also serves as a base to gain experience that is not available elsewhere at a University level.’
He is aware of the problems inherent, ‘there are certainly some theatrical effects that need the enclosed space of a theatre’, but feels this is balanced by the fact that ‘it adds a new dimension to the performance that we wouldn’t get on the OFS or playhouse stage.’
Garden plays are plagued with difficulties and doubts, more so even than normal productions; but the danger and the drama is all part of their appeal.
The uniqueness of the setting makes for a truly unforgetable experience, even if the plays are those which will always be produced, which you will see again and again. Sunglasses, sun-cream, and sunshine. Go for it.