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A Theater’s 18th-Century Thunder Run Rumbles Once More

Thunder Run at the Old Vic
The Thunder Run at the Bristol Old Vic, with the theater’s artistic director, Tom Morris (photo by Jon Craig, all images courtesy Bristol Old Vic)

The thunderstorm in the third act of Shakespeare’s King Lear will rumble ominously in the Bristol Old Vic’s production of the play this summer thanks to 18th-century sound effects. The “thunder run” in the British theater’s ceiling is a rare example of cutting-edge Georgian technology that involves balls rolling down a wooden chute to conjure the roar of a tempest.

Thunder Run at the Bristol Old Vic (photo by Jon Craig)
The thunder run at the Bristol Old Vic (photo by Jon Craig) (click to enlarge)

“Speaking from firsthand experience, it really does work,” Amanda Adams at the Bristol Old Vic told Hyperallergic. “It’s a physical experience where the crew will have to roll a series of wooden balls down a pitch pine gutter built into the rafters of the roof space above the audience’s heads. It’s very different from the digital sound you normally get in 21st-century film and theater.”

The thunder run’s last recorded use was in 1942. Opened in 1766, the Bristol Old Vic is one of the oldest theaters in the world. As it celebrates its 250th anniversary this year, it’s undergoing a major refurbishment project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

“When Artistic Director Tom Morris arrived in 2009, he was immediately drawn to the thunder run and made it his mission to get it working again,” Adams explained. “We were reaching a point where no one in living memory had heard it used.”

Thunder Run at the Old Vic
The thunder run at the Bristol Old Vic (photo by Jon Craig)
Auditorium of the Bristol Old Vic (photo by Philip Vile)
Auditorium of the Bristol Old Vic (photo by Philip Vile)
Thunder Run at the Old Vic
The thunder run at the Bristol Old Vic (photo by Jon Craig)

Theater historian David Wilmore was enlisted to carry out test runs, and over three days the Bristol Old Vic technical team learned how to use the old-fashioned sound device. Experimenting with the dividers and differently sized spheres, they discovered that the original balls were likely wood rather than lead cannonballs, as long believed.

“[Wilmore] was also able to reveal that Bristol Old Vic’s thunder run is only one of three working examples in the UK, and predates the next oldest by over 150 years,” Adams added.

Most thunder runs disappeared with the advance of new technology, and other theaters used less cumbersome methods from the start, like metal thunder sheets rattled offstage. These were often joined by rain boxes, which consisted of dried peas rolling through a long structure with ledges nailed inside, and a wind machine, featuring a rotating cylinder of wooden slats covered with fabric. The Bristol Old Vic hopes to eventually host public tours for visitors to see the thunder run firsthand.

The weather in Shakespeare’s plays is often a character unto itself, whether it’s the howling wind in Macbeth or the titular storm of The Tempest. This summer, as the fallen King Lear wails, “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!” on the heath, the thunder’s response will wickedly roll above the crowd.

You can hear the Bristol Old Vic’s thunder run at work in this video from the BBC:

 

The thunder run will be in used in King Lear at the Bristol Old Vic (King Street, Bristol, England) from June 18 to July 10.

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