Illyria is a group of touring players, created over twenty-five years ago, that performs open-air theatre for both adults and children. Every summer since 1991, the group has travelled through the UK, Europe and North America, with a wide selection of plays. The actors have changed over the years, but director Oliver Gray has led the troop since the beginning.
Years ago, we used to take the kids to watch Illyra productions at Ightham Mote, a medieval moated manor house and National Trust property on the outskirts of Sevenoaks in Kent. I particularly remember a fine performance of Alice in Wonderland. It was a magical spot: the manor house an integral part of the backdrop; a hill for the children to roll down when they needed to let off steam; a picnic tea on the lawn beside the moat.
This time, we are at Tonbridge Castle, which looms behind the stage in the twilight. After a remarkably reliable summer of endless blue skies and not a drop of rain, the clouds are gathering over Tonbridge tonight. Fortunately, the rain holds off, as we delve enthusiastically into our picnic baskets and chat with wandering cast members.
The troop’s website warns audiences that they will take the mickey out of anyone wandering in late but it appears everyone got the memo, arriving promptly with picnic rugs, tables and chairs. We have also noted the tip to bring wine and cake, but I think most of us left the candelabras at home!
We have wisely brought umbrellas and raincoats, too, although the poor cast, on the roofless stage, is not so well protected, as the thunder rumbles overhead and intermittent rain douses them from head to foot. At one point, the thunder and lightening, timed to perfection, takes its cue from the script: ‘Why, look how you storm’ I think, or perhaps ‘it droppeth as from the gentle rain from heaven’? It might have been both.
The five actors are appealingly animated and amusing. It is a polished, high octane, performance, with the cast taking on four or five roles apiece, using different costumes and different accents to signify the changes. We are struck by how well they keep track of their various parts, making it remarkably easy to follow the plot. As the website says, The Merchant of Venice is a comedy that deals with serious issues, so it is ‘by turns, gripping, funny, romantic and thought-provoking.’ The audience responds with delight.
The performers remain undaunted by the weather, never veering from the script, regardless of the rain, although, by the final scene, we can barely hear them, as the rain pounds down heavily on our umbrellas, and torrents of water pour off the stage. The final lines are delivered in a roar to compete with the storm, an yet, somehow, the cast finishes the play without any appearance of being drenched in the downpour, apart from the occasional need to swipe dripping locks out of their eyes.
I particularly loved the fact that the actors obviously enjoyed performing as much as we enjoyed watching them. And it was great to see so many families, with kids of all ages, engaged in the show. Having sat through several slow, dull theatre and film productions of this Shakespearean classic, I wam thrilled that the Illyria team didn’t take themselves too seriously and the humour was paramount. It verged on Gilbert & Sullivan for light-hearted, easy-going entertainment.
It was such an outstanding performance, I was tempted to follow them around the country, like a groupie or camp follower, to see their other performances this season: Doctor Dolittle, the Pirates of Penzance and The Hound of the Baskervilles. Sadly, it wasn’t an option, but if you get the chance, I highly recommend tracking them down. You won’t regret it, even in the rain!
*Photos care of Illyria and me!