How did they (make a storm) in King Lear

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A storm in King Lear - but how was it done on Shakespeare's stage?

Welcome to my new blog series looking at the original staging of Shakespeare’s plays. I am going to work through Shakespeare’s plays choosing something within that play to explore, from costumes to rehearsal practice and special effects this series will explore what we know, and what we don’t know about original staging practices.

I am going to begin with King Lear and it’s storm. Several of Shakespeare’s plays contain storms and so it seems as if it was no problem for Shakespeare to create the effect of a violent storm in an outdoor theatre which may (or may not) have been bathed in sunshine. On today’s stage of course it is no problem, the house lights can be brought down to enhance lightning effects, recordings of real storms can be played, and even a deal of stage rain can be dropped on the head of the actor playing Lear. The main difficulty is getting the audio balance right so that the storm is powerful but Lear’s lines can still be heard. For shakespeare without the benefit of lighting, or sound recordings and with no control over the weather of the day, the challenge seems at first almost insurmountable.

But there was a way to achieve this through a combination of special effects. Firstly and perhaps most inventively they employed cannon balls (from 9 – 22lbs in weight) which were rolled over low wooden slats to produce a noise not unlike that of roll of thunder. The wooden slats over which the balls were rolled were set at intermittent intervals thus recreating the natural arrhythmic sound of thunder. For the ultimate storm effect two such pieces of munitions would be rolled in opposite directs within the ball rolling trap. The balls were rolled in a trap something like this

 

Creating a storm

(Illustration by Ian Dickinson)

To enhance this they also used gun power, this was blown into a candle flame, producing a flash of light and probably a deal of ‘cloudy’ smoke. The noise of howling wind is much less of a challenge and was made using woodwind instruments. So the sound and feel of a storm was easily recreated by Shakespeare’s company in a way one imagines would have been quite effective. The only thing they didn’t do was to create stage rain – unless of course it happened to be raining for real during the production!

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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT

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