Samantha Spiro, Anneika Rose, Nigel Cooke, Silas Carson, Sean Campion, Ben Mansfield, Tim Steed, Anthony O’Donnell, Simon Gregor, Tim Howar, Annalisa Rossi
In this, the first of four productions to appear at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre this summer, director Timothy Sheader has succeeded in applying a modern slant to his insightful staging of Shakespeare’s play.
Much Ado tells of the shenanigans that precede the final coming together of two couples: Beatrice and Benedick, between whom wits clash and sparks fly, and Hero and Claudio.
Ideal stuff for a balmy summer evening but not much food for thought, or so I initially thought.
Because Sheader has succeeded in combining Shakespeare’s original points on male-female relationships whilst also making the play live for a twenty-first century audience.
He brings out Shakespeare’s sub-text that the sixteenth century norm was for men to cherish women as objects if they were virgins, but to cast them from society if they proved otherwise. He also uses the brilliantly sharp Beatrice to expose men as the fools and the frequent cause of their own misfortune, a point less likely to have come across in Shakespeare’s day when she would have been played by a man.
Sheader’s vision is realised by a superb cast, headed by Samantha Spiro as Beatrice. She manages to play her lines straight whilst still imbuing them with all the irony that they merit. In direct contrast, Sean Campion delivers Benedick’s soliloquies, in which he believes he is spouting ingenious thoughts, so that he looks more foolish by the word.
Nigel Cooke as Beatrice’s uncle, Leonato, possesses a subtle and sensitive air that suggests both strength and weakness of character in equal measure, whilst Anthony O’Donnell delivers a polished comic turn as the constable, Dogberry, as he desperately tries to stand taller than those around him.
The simple, but highly effective, set consisted of a central circular platform around which an undulating wooden gangway snaked. This provided a graceful, curved performance space, whilst comic moments could be played out on its various levels. As Beatrice eavesdropped on Hero and Margaret’s conversation (which they wanted her to overhear) her efforts to stay hidden saw her clambering up ladders and orange trees, trapping her foot in a lemon basket, and sending fruit rolling across the stage.
The production was, however, sightly less successful in some of the more emotive moments. For example, the scene where Friar Francis suggests faking Hero’s death, in order to defy those who had wrongly accused her of adultery, failed to move with the same force that the more satirical scenes bit.
But, on the whole, the production skilfully balanced the serious and comic elements of the play. This was no more apparent than at the close after both couples had come together. Amidst the general revelries it became noticeable (though only just) that the Prince of Aragon, Don Pedro, remained alone throughout the final dance. As much as anything, this was a subtle reminder that Shakespeare, after presenting such a multi-faceted drama, had not, as has often been suggested, simply resorted to seeing everyone live ‘happily ever after’.