Friday, 5 June 2009

Much Ado About Nothing - Open Air Theatre, Regents Park

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare
Director: Timothy Sheader
Reviewer: Honour Bayes

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre is possibly the most beautiful space to be in London on a balmy summer’s evening. Reminiscent of a Greek Amphitheatre the gently sloping auditorium and circular stage are framed by an azure sky and towering trees, all the world, it would seem, truly is a stage this evening. Performed against a backdrop of humming bees and the gentle whisper of the wind Timothy Sheader’s charming production of Much Ado About Nothing delicately succeeds in winding its audience around its little finger.

Don Pedro, the Prince of Aragon, returns from war with his men, including Claudio and Benedict, to the delight of the household of Leonato, father of Hero and uncle of Beatrice. Hero and Claudio fall in love and are to be married in a week, but in the meantime there is mischief to be had with the staunchly bachelor Benedict and Beatrice. As Don Pedro conspires to match make these two, his bastard brother, Don John, plots to destroy this merry company with a false accusation that nearly destroys them all.

Although his bonny production sporadically passes over the plays more significant textual moments, Sheader’s light direction brings out Shakespeare’s funniest lines and exchanges with a good dollop of jovial slapstick and some very smooth stage play. It careers along at a cracking pace, bringing the text to life with a merry wiggle and a jaunty wink.

Underneath this revelry, Sheader handles the inherent misogyny within the play with a strong understanding of modern feminist perspectives; a pertinent point is exquisitely made whilst Hero is dressed for her wedding in a metal bodice and skirt hoops which poignantly resemble chains. But it is clear that Sheader’s ‘hero’ is not this young impressionable girl, but the bold older cousin whose rejection of the male status quo is realised through a biting verbal wit. Comedy has always been used to subvert the establishment and so it is in the feisty and powerful Beatrice portrayed here with gusto by Samantha Spiro. When she incites Benedict to challenge the fickle and emotionally juvenile Claudio (a suitably boyish Ben Mansfield) Spiro becomes the avenging angel that all woman in the audience long to see wreak justice on the so called ‘good’ men of Messina.

Spiro’s Beatrice and Sean Campion’s buccaneering Benedict perhaps lack the disenchanted wisdom that is so rarely brought out to the full in these two mature lovers, but they dally with each other very prettily; the scenes of their entrapment into love being the highlights of the show, twinkling with quips and hocking a pretty hefty feel good punch.

Only equal to the levity of these scenes are the marvellous performances of Antony O’Donnell as Dogberry and Simon Gregor’s hilariously fawning Verges; never over-the-top these two adorable buffoons channel such greats as Laurel and Hardy, making one feel that slapstick has truly come home.

The costumes and set are pleasing if a little inconsequential, letting the performances and natural back drop take centre stage in a crowd pleasing production which makes up for it’s lack of focus with fruity cheek. The music was a bit too dainty for my tastes, and the absence of live music was sorely missed (the recorded soundtrack seeming incongruous when faced with all this natural beauty) but on the whole this is an engaging Much Ado which succeeds in the deceptively hard task of making a Shakespearian comedy laugh out loud funny.

Photos: Alastair Muir

Much Ado runs until 27th June.
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