first night

Much Ado About Nothing by Bill Shakespeare

Ben Weaver-Hincks braves the elements to review Castle Theatre Company's al fresco production of Much Ado About Nothing

There isn’t exactly a dearth of outdoor Shakespeare this June for the Durham theatre-goer, and you would be forgiven for wondering at the attraction of this perennial phenomenon. Al fresco comedy can be more of an ordeal than a pleasure: uncomfortable seating, unpredictable weather and barely audible dialogue can make for a tedious couple of hours, redeemed only by the promise of a picnic. Fortunately, Castle Theatre Company’s production of Much Ado About Nothing reminded its audience of the many possibilities of an outdoor performance, and enlivened it with the energy and freshness necessary to counteract the soporific effects of a cloudy summer afternoon.

Eschewing the temptation to dazzle or surprise with an unconventional staging of the play, Bobbi Nicholson’s direction created a simple, effective and immensely satisfying theatrical experience. The set was minimal: an arbour, some topiary, and a trunk that doubled up variously as a seat, an altar and a tomb. The themes of trickery and deception had their visual counterparts in the play’s masks, veils and an inventory of ingenious hiding places. The rest, however, was left to the Fellows’ Garden itself, in which CTC had access to one of the most impressively understated outdoor spaces in Durham, and the actors engaged competently and imaginatively with hedges, trees and paths. The quad was utilised thoroughly, if not originally. Actors could enter from a variety of locations, including from the back of the quad along the path to the front, presenting, no doubt, an additional challenge as they had to time their entrances accordingly. The fact that characters were often visible long after they had left the stage lent the play a sense of continuity, and the varied movement around the quad extended the ‘stage’ to the garden as a whole.

Although the play began a little slowly, and at moments it was unclear whether the cast would be able to hold the audience’s attention against the distractions of the elements, it soon found its feet. The masked ball in Act II is the play’s central opportunity for spectacle, and so it would be a test of the minimal set; but the masks and the costumes sat well against the garden, marrying show and simplicity. As for the music, lutes were exchanged for a ukulele and maracas, and Renaissance dance music was swapped for a simple four-chord progression, in an unlikely merger between a Hawaiian beach and a hotel elevator. It was certainly slightly surreal, and although it never quite tipped over into absurdity, these elements were perhaps sometimes humorous for the wrong reasons.

The play benefited from a cast that looked comfortable together, and from pairings with strong and believable chemistry. Leading them from the front were Liz Smith and Fergus Leathem, as Beatrice and Benedick, respectively. Like much of the cast, Liz Smith made a slightly hesitant start before stepping into her role with ease and found the humour wherever it was to be found. Lines such as “I know you of old” were delivered in such a way as to highlight the ambiguities that the play celebrates, and Smith shared an empathy with her words that can only come with a real acquaintance with the lines. While the production made no explicit attempts to modernise Shakespeare’s original, Smith played Beatrice with a Bridget-Jones-esque familiarity that contextualised the play as an Elizabethan rom-com, and made her character instantly sympathetic. Fergus Leathem was equally at home as Benedick, exploiting the physical comedy available to his part and taking his character from the words themselves.

Rebecca Collingwood and Sam Kingston-Jones brought unlikely sympathy to the rather insipid roles of Hero and Claudio. Moments such as their failed wedding, which became a surprisingly moving scene, demonstrated that both actors were more than capable of working with their parts. Here, Kingston-Jones’ anger and Collingwood’s grief made a powerful departure from the play’s dominantly comic tone. However, Much Ado can often suffer from too great an emphasis on the comic struggle between its more dynamic protagonists and a lack of focus on its supporting characters, and to a degree, CTC’s version fell into this very trap. The highly physical and comic portrayals of Beatrice and Benedick became the central aspects of the production, and rather overshadowed other elements, such as Hero and Claudio’s story.

Elsewhere, the cast was almost exclusively strong. Callum Cheatle’s Conrade drew intelligently on recent performance practice as an effeminate potential lover of Don John. However, whereas such a portrayal is more commonly used to undermine Don John’s segregation from his society, his apparent indifference to his follower’s affections turned the latter into a hopeless comic character. Where the cast most noticeably let themselves down was in their secondary roles. Harry Bresslaw, for instance, whose Don John was a highlight of the play as the perfect image of sinister scheming, became overly-caricatured as the Sexton, and Hero’s attendants transformed into slightly uncomfortable watchmen.

The actors and director had clearly put great effort into mining the play of its puns and double entendres so that Benedick’s attempt to find a “double meaning” in Beatrice’s words seemed far from futile. Such puns in the play, and its use of asides, can of course border on the meta-theatrical, and it seems that Bobbi Nicholson used this as a license to move the play into these realms. At one point Beatrice is seen to come into the audience and react over-zealously to get the audience on her side. This was unexpected, and was certainly a risk. However, the setting had already done the job of blurring the boundaries between stage and audience, and so the move was seamless and became one of the play’s highlights, receiving a very strong reaction from the audience.

CTC’s Much Ado About Nothing was everything outdoor Shakespeare should be: light-hearted, visually effective and predominantly fast-paced, its rare failings were forgivable. Its beautiful setting and polished performance made it an enjoyable and refreshing afternoon of theatre – the perfect antidote to the slow days of a Durham summer.

17 June 2011

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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