Playing to the gallery


In what is the group’s 20th annual production, the 2015 season of Shakespeare at Traquair sees a performance of Hamlet. Ahead of opening night on Wednesday, we caught up with some of the players to talk beards, peacocks, audience participation and the challenges of putting on a promenade performance

Scott Noble’s first involvement as an actor in Shakespeare at Traquair many years ago was nothing short of nerve-wracking. “It was The Taming of the Shrew and my character and one other were the first ones on,” he recalls. “We had to start on the lawn at Traquair where the audience was milling around having a glass of wine and just start speaking. Right from the off we were part of the audience. It was quite an adrenaline rush.”

Such audience immersion is one of the special challenges of a promenade performance; with no stage to restrict movement, and little idea of what size audience will be there each night, there’s an element of making it up as you go along.

And that suits Scott just fine. “There’s a bit of improvisation needed as you don’t have fixed points in which to stand or know how close the audience will be at any time,” he says. “It can be quite liberating, although it takes a bit of experience to get your head around it.”  

Now in its 20th year, Shakespeare at Traquair was meant to be a one-off. Back in 1995, Richard Nisbet, Judy Steel and Catherine Maxwell Stuart came up with the idea of a promenade performance of Shakespeare at Traquair House to support Under One Roof, a charity that was raising funds for the development of what would become the Eastgate Theatre in Peebles. The inaugural year saw a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with actors and artists drawn from across the Borders and Lothians. It proved so successful that the group decided to do it all again the following year, and the momentum built from there. Something special had been born.

Whether comedy or heavyweight drama, Shakespeare’s plays somehow lend themselves to promenade performances – particularly when in a setting as magnificent as the grounds of Traquair House. “There are sometimes long soliloquies during which you can really engage with the audience and make eye contact,” says Scott. “Sometimes you can even reach out and touch people, making them part of the play for a moment.”

However, being set outdoors, and with an audience that wanders around following the action, there can be moments that challenge even the most focussed of actors. Traquair is known for the peacocks that strut around the grounds, with the birds frequently calling out as they settle down to roost in the trees – often at key points during a performance. Then there are the rabbits that dash across the ‘stage’, sudden rain showers, and children who bustle around in the audience. “One year I was doing what was almost a love scene in Much Ado About Nothing and there was a man on crutches in the audience who started a fight!” remembers Scott.

Always one to throw himself into a role, it’s at this time of year that work colleagues have grown used to seeing Scott with a full beard, or hair dyed to suit a particular role. “It can be quite consuming,” he admits. “A couple of years ago, I played Iago in Othello. It’s a huge part with big chunks of dialogue to learn. I work in Edinburgh and would often go out at lunch and wander around Princes Street Gardens with a script in my hands muttering away.”

Given that this year sees the 20th anniversary of Shakespeare at Traquair, it’s fitting that the group will tackle one of the Bard’s most famous plays of all – Hamlet. “It’s a play that the group has been a little afraid of ... not least how you get a four- to five-hour play down to the required two-and-a-half hours at Traquair,” explains director Steve Russell.

So what can the audience expect? “Well, the text has been edited by almost a half to get to the real heart of the play,” explains Steve. “All the scenes that you would expect are there but will perhaps be felt more keenly. Also, we’ve got a very strong cast – the leads in particular are superb. Don’t forget, a lot of professional actors might only do Shakespeare once or twice in their careers, whereas we’ve got people who’ve done 10 or 15 plays down the years.”

With this year’s performances almost upon them – opening night is on Wednesday 27 May – the cast and crew can’t wait. “The rehearsals have gone well and we’re ready to go,” says Steve. “Now we just want to play in front of an audience!”

Further info

Held in the grounds of Traquair House, this year’s performances of Hamlet start at 7.30pm each evening from Wed 27 May to Sat 30 May, and again from Wed 3 June to Sat 6 June. A supper menu is available from 5.30pm each evening. Tickets available from the Eastgate Theatre, Peebles.

Photography: Anthony Newton


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