Monday, 1 June 2009

Much Ado About Nothing - Regents Park Open Air Theatre 2009

Much Ado About Nothing 
Regents Park Open Air Theatre, London, UK.

I love Regent's Park Theatre. I love the way that everything – not just the theatre but the dining and even the loos – is open to the elements. It gives an immediate sense of connectedness, to the lush green surroundings and to the other theatregoers, that is absent from so many other theatres. As the sun sets over the stage and we wait for the action to begin, the atmosphere is exuberant. We are like children, with our ice-creams and our drinks, fiddling with our jumpers – too hot? too cold? - trying to get settled before the play begins. After all, the lights won’t dim in this venue, and only the slow-creeping night will eventually separate us from the rest of the audience.

The staging for this production is simple but beautiful: a circular stage with a walkway twisting across and around it, sloping upwards to create exits on different levels. Fruit trees – an orange and a lemon – burst through the stage, the wooden panels around them peeled back in curled strips as if they have grown up through the boards. The trees give a sense of permanence to the rustic setting, with baskets of fruit under each one, and ladders and a wheelbarrow beside the stage. This is harvest time: a time to reap the rewards of our labours. The stage with its greenery blends perfectly with the park trees behind and around it, creating the sense of a much bigger space for the characters to move about in.

This is a fairly full version of the text, not the pared-down-to-the-jokes fare that one often sees. Having said that, Antonio (Leonato’s brother) has been entirely cut from this production, and an extra attendant added for Hero, perhaps to help balance out the quota of male and female characters. The tone of the production is light-hearted, although it didn’t raise as many laughs as I would have expected of Much Ado, despite generally good performances and some excellent set pieces.

Samantha Spiro as Beatrice is vivacious and audacious: smoking a pipe, showing her bloomers (several times), and even taking the lead when dancing with the masked Benedick. This is indeed a lady who is ‘all mirth’, and yet Spiro still manages to show a sensitive side of her nature that occasionally slips through and is then hastily covered up with more jokes. Benedick (Sean Campion) is in this production more of a good-natured clown than a razor-sharp wit, looking evermore bewildered as events unfold. With a soft Irish accent and good use of the comic pause, Campion‘s Benedick is no match for Spiro’s feisty Beatrice.

The big comic scene of the play - the gulling of Beatrice and Benedick – was played to full effect and got the laughs it deserved. Making good use of the required slapstick, Beatrice’s attempts to hide are foiled by her knocking over a basket of oranges which roll downhill and scatter across the stage, stepping into the empty basket and getting her foot caught, snapping off the branch she is crouched behind and being sent sprawling, and then hitting the second tree so hard that it too flings its burden of fruit across the stage. Benedick, in his scene, brings his buffoonery to the fore, hiding under a table and creeping around behind his friends in what is obviously full view of them. Both characters try to turn their outraged exclamations into bird calls, a trick that is rather believable in this outdoor setting. Whilst we don’t see much change in Beatrice once she learns of Benedick’s affection, Benedick himself arrives on stage in puff-sleeved jacket, high-heeled shoes and a feathered hat – the very picture of a lover - and is, unsurprisingly, mocked by his friends.

Hero (Anneika Rose) is sweet and smiling as always, and Don Pedro (Silas Carson) princely as required. Claudio (Ben Mansfield) is appropriately stroppy and sulky. Don John (Tim Steed) is sneeringly evil, but what’s really interesting here is how his actions come as a result of his treatment by his brother. Brought on stage in handcuffs and with raw wrists, he is pushed, kicked and generally (mis)treated as a figure of fun by the other men. In this production, it seems that Borachio (Peter Bramhill) is the real drunken mastermind behind the plot to dishonour Hero, and Don John merely a stumbling puppet. Leonato (Nigel Cooke) does well as the fair-minded Governor and grieving father, but I can’t help but think that the character loses something, some sense of real power, by the lack of his brother to back him up. Hero’s attendants, Ursula (Sarah Ingram) and Margaret (Annalisa Rossi) are both confident and full of energy, and when seen alongside Beatrice and the strong-but-reserved Hero, make up quite a formidable group of women.

Bumbling and well-meaning Dogberry (Anthony O’Donnell), and Verges (Simon Gregor) keep their comedy low-key and simple, and on the whole this works well. Short and rather stout, O’Donnell’s Dogberry needs to stand on a box in order to speak eye-to-eye with the Watch, and much is made of this, with Verges hoveringly trying to anticipate where he will want to stand next. There is a lovely scene where the incompetent Watch, (Harry Myers, Mark McGee, and Eke Chukwu), overhear and capture the boasting Borachio and Conrade (Chris Jared). Creeping around and under the stage to follow the malefactors, they end up right under where Borachio is relieving himself, stepping out at just the right moment to get caught in the liquid flow. One of them even manages to entangle himself in the ropes that catch the villains, dragging them off stage tied bodily against him.

The costuming in this production has the feel of being Elizabethan without constraining itself to pure accuracy. There is also interesting use made of metalwork, in the masks of the revellers, and in Hero’s golden corset, skirt and headdress. The play is interspersed with songs, prettily performed by Tim Howar, and ends with an arrangement of the well-known ‘Sigh No More’, accompanied by a sedate dance that gets wilder as Beatrice and Benedick leap about, and swing each other around in a show of unity, as well as the suggestion of a new kind of (physical) rivalry between them.

Director Timothy Sheader has put together a fun and easy-going production of Much Ado and one which can be enjoyed by anyone on a warm summer evening. 

This review was originally published on The Shakespeare Revue.

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