One of the lovely things about living in Oxford in the summer is the quirky British traditional of outdoor Shakespeare. Every year, several theatre companies put on productions of Shakespeare's plays in various unusual settings across the city. Yesterday my husband and I were lucky enough to enjoy Creation theatre's thrilling production of Macbeth in the hugely atmospheric grounds of Lady Margaret Hall.
I was first introduced to the phenomenon of outdoor Shakespeare around 20 years ago when I was a student in Cambridge. I remember loving the inventive way in which the plays were staged to make best use of their unique settings, and enjoying the immediacy and intimacy of the productions. But I also remember being frustrated by the acoustic challenges often posed by outdoor spaces. Sudden gusts of wind or bursts of heavy traffic noise would easily drown out a couplet or two, thus making Shakespeare's already complicated language even harder to understand.
Things have clearly moved on since my student days. Once we were seated at our cabaret-style table, I was pleased to hear the reassuringly loud music being efficiently broadcast by a powerful sound system. And as the play began, it became apparent that auditory issues are a thing of the past: I could hear all the actors perfectly - indeed perhaps even more clearly than in the traditional theatre - thanks to their powerful radio mics.
Unfortunately, this technological improvement brought with it an unexpected problem for me. When several people are on stage at once, I rely on the direction their voices are coming from to identify who is speaking. But because everyone's lines were being relayed to the audience via the sound system, I had no way of using the actors' voices to situate them on stage. And because Shakespeare - unlike Racine - does not routinely use auditory clues or verbal prompts in his verse, I often found it hard to tell not only who was talking but also who they were talking to.
Worse still, the play's inventive staging, which created a gripping and engaging narrative, also meant that the actors made use not only of the space directly in front of the audience, but also places to the sides or even behind us. Without being able to use their voices to follow their movements, I completely lost track of the whereabouts of the actors on several occasions. I had to surreptitiously look in the vague direction that my husband's head was pointing in order to pretend to be watching the play, whilst in fact most of the time I was really only listening to it.
A similar thing happened when I was on holiday last year. During a visit to Pompeii, our guide provided us with WhisperSystem headsets through which she was able to describe the exhibits to us without disturbing other tour groups. At first I was enchanted with this kind of personal audio description which worked brilliantly when the guide was close enough to describe what I was actually in front of. But when I wandered away from her in a large open area, her insistent cries of 'I'm over here!' were of absolutely no use to me because I couldn't see her waving arms and had no way of using the direction of her voice to pinpoint her.
I certainly hope to be going to more outdoor Shakespeare again soon. But this particular technological advance means that it will never again be the experience it was when I was a student. Next time I'll go with the knowledge that I won't be able to use my sense of hearing to follow the play. I might catch some of its action in my blurry vision but mostly I'll sit back and enjoy Shakespeare's language, treating the whole performance as a lavish and enthralling open-air radio play.