Why rain won’t stop play for the actors at Ripley

Richard Corgan and Becci Gemmell who play Petruchio and Kate in Sprite Productions' The Taming of the Shrew at Ripley Castle
Richard Corgan and Becci Gemmell who play Petruchio and Kate in Sprite Productions' The Taming of the Shrew at Ripley Castle
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As dark clouds gather above Ripley Castle, Sarah Freeman meets the cast of an open air production of The Taming of the Shrew.

When audiences gather to watch the The Taming of the Shrew staged against the backdrop of Ripley Castle, they’ll see some members of the cast hiding in trees. Others will demonstrate a new found talent for swing dancing and there’s likely to be a couple of chickens wandering through the action.

Sadly, after a last minute change of plan, what they won’t get to witness is Richard Corgan making his entrance as Petruchio from the middle of Ripley’s lake.

When rehearsals got under way a few weeks ago, director Charlotte Bennett had a vision, among her many ideas to make the best use of the outdoor setting. It involved Corgan in a pair of waders and a Shakespearean take on Monty Python’s Lady in the Lake.

“I stripped down to my pants and thought, ‘Well, I might as well give it a go’,” says Corgan, who returns to Ripley after playing Macduff in Sprite’s production of Macbeth last year. “The water was fine, but it was what was underneath it which was the problem. It was full of cow and duck poo. Thankfully, Charlotte made the very wise decision that I probably shouldn’t risk contracting some nasty disease in the name of art.”

It’s the third time Corgan has appeared in one of Sprite’s open air productions and Ripley now feels like a second home for the Welshman.

“In football if you score a hat trick, you get to the keep the ball, but I’m not sure what you get as an actor,” he says.

“To be honest I would come back here every year if I could. There are so many open air Shakespeare productions, but Sprite have a history of doing something a little different. It’s not just a play outdoors, it’s much more of a site specific production.”

That might seem like a question of semantics, but while many productions simply take a stage outside, at Ripley the grounds are as much a part of the play as the actors themselves.

The audience are led round the estate with the various scenes staged in half a dozen locations and this year Sprite’s choice of play is a brave one. While The Taming of the Shrew was recently revived by the Royal Shakespeare Company, it’s a work which is often dismissed as misogynist.

The problem lies in the fact that Petruchio accepts to woo the fiery Kate as a bet and the fact he succeeds can sit uncomfortably with modern audiences.

Newcomer to Sprite, Becci Gemmell, who plays Kate, admits that it’s not an obvious choice in an open air calendar typically packed with productions of As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

“What you don’t want at the end is for the audience to see a downtrodden woman, but I don’t think that is what the play is about,” says Gemmell, best known for her portrayal of Joyce in BBC1’s The Land Girls. “Kate reminds me a lot of me when I was younger. There are lots of photos of family holidays when I was stood 30ft from everyone else sulking. I spent a lot of my teens threatening to bang doors.

“Kate starts the play as a really extreme character and by the end she hasn’t been forced to bow to society’s expectations, she’s just fallen in love. I honestly see both Kate and Petruchio as equals and any examples of misogyny which might exist in the original text are easy to sidestep.”

Corgan describes the relationship as a boxing match and with the play set very specifically in 1947 it gives the 16th-century play added resonance.

“I think it definitely helps make sense of the gender roles,” says Bennett. “During the Second World War women found a new independence, but when the men came home they were expected to return to their traditional roles. There seems to have been a really interesting divide between those who were happy to go back to being wives and mothers and those who definitely weren’t.”

The finishing touches are now being put to the costumes, the large community cast are perfecting their lines and the final props are being sourced. However, for all the hard work going on behind the scenes, anyone involved in an outdoor production during a British summer knows there is one thing that they can’t control.

“It has to stop raining soon, doesn’t it?” says Gemmell.

A veteran of three Sprite Productions, Corgan is not convinced.

“Last year, just before a performance of Macbeth there was a massive hail storm. One of my costume changes was hidden under a bush and it was frozen solid.

“But it really doesn’t matter. As much as it’s lovely to perform on a lovely summer’s evening, if you and the audience get to the end having been battered by the rain, it’s almost an even better feeling. However, I will be taking precautions. This year, I’ll be investing in some black bin bags for the costumes.”

The Taming of the Shrew, June 20 to July 8. A preview performance of the production will take place on June 19 when all tickets are £10. For further details call 01423 770632, www.spriteproductions.co.uk

From a Shrew to a tiny snail

Alongside The Taming of the Shrew, Ripley Castle will also provide the setting for a show for younger audiences.

Tall Stories, the company which brought The Gruffalo to the stage, will this year be performing another Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler story.

The Snail and Whale combines physical storytelling with live music and the show, which will be staged in a tented area of the walled gardens, is suitable for those aged four and up.

The touring production will arrive in Ripley on June 30, with performances at 11am and 1.30pm. Tickets must be bought from the box office in advance.