Scottish Opera's pop-up theatre is laying the crucial groundwork to revive live entertainment – Brian Ferguson
Driving along the M8 on Saturday afternoon, the omens were not looking good.
Glowering dark skies turning into something resembling a tropical downpour were not the kind of conditions to set the mood for my first foray into live outdoor entertainment since the start of the pandemic.
After months of talking about and reporting on outdoor shows, the reality of doing them in a Scottish summer was beginning to become clear as quickly as the visibility through the car windscreen deteriorated.
Given the less than optimistic forecast, the car boot was filled with enough wet and warm weather gear to last a winter weekend – just a couple of days after I was tackling the hills and cobbles of Edinburgh’s Old Town in sweltering heat.
The big draw to return to Glasgow for my first event there in 16 months – and my first full-scale show anywhere in that time – was the opening night of an outdoor festival created by Scottish Opera in the car park of its production studios.
If that sounds a far cry from a night at the Theatre Royal, the reality was very different to what I had imagined – even though the same site had been used, albeit on a much smaller scale – for a production of La Boheme last September.
The big selling point for audiences bound for Scottish Opera’s temporary theatre over the next few weeks is that it has an enormous gazebo-style roof. Although the storm clouds had abated by the time of the show, it was still a reassuring sign of things to come in Edinburgh next month given the International Festival’s investment in covered outdoor structures for the bulk of its programme.
With a team of 120 working on the production, it is hard to imagine seeing anything on a scale to match the opening night of Scottish Opera’s production of Verdi’s Falstaff, a riotous romp played out by a cast donning all manner of extravagant costumes, on a huge stage, often against the backdrop of the car park’s trees, for some time.
But, long after many Covid restrictions were eased, the real fascination lay in seeing the first tentative steps made to bring live entertainment back.
Despite the size of the car park and the impressive footprint of the venue, audience sizes were capped at just 150, with each household bubble spaced out two metres apart, under the Scottish government’s notoriously strict distancing guidelines, which rule out the staging of live events for all but a handful of subsidised companies and festivals.
The relatively modest size of the crowd, which looked and felt a lot more as the cast took their applause after the two-and-a-half-hour show, meant it was possible for drinks to be brought to their seats. It also ensured that the event was a relaxed way for audiences return to a live event without at any time feeling the pressure of being in a busy crowd.
The ingenious pop-up theatre will – along with the admirable efforts of Pitlochry Festival Theatre, where an outdoor amphitheatre has been built – lay the crucial groundwork for other companies, events and venues in starting the long road back to reuniting audiences and performers.