I always look forward to the start of the new season at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. They are blessed with an idyllic outdoor setting and they make the most of it, with twinkling lights intertwined with ivy leaves, and a plunging auditorium overlooking the stage set deep in a secluded area of wooded tranquility. Throughout most of the play, a gentle wave of blossoms floats across the expanse of the audience and a heavy bouquet of lavender hangs in the air. With a setting like this, it’s hard not to get swept away with one of Shakespeare’s most sunny and festive plays.
Indeed, this production makes the most of its glorious setting. Philip Whitcomb’s set design is a curvy, intertwining wooden creation paired with Messenian orange and lemon trees. The structure is fantastically striking and facilitates a stream of convenient exits and entrances. Deirdre Clancy’s costume design is a deliberate use of Elizabethan dress. Clancy incorporates the simple but effective use of color-coding to differentiate between characters and moods, and her design helps create a fresh yet traditional performance.
Similarly, Simon Mills’ lighting design intelligently complements the action and works sympathetically with the natural lighting of the evening. Different moods are subtly intimated through different color palettes and effectively indicate swift time changes, for example when the vigil for Hero hastily runs into the proceeding marriage.
Some of the casting choices are spot on: Nigel Cooke as Leonato, Peter Bramhill as a notably bold and convincing Borachio, and Samantha Spiro as the feisty feminist Beatrice. Yet I find it a constant battle to accept Sean Campion in the role of Benedick. It’s true that Benedick must be significantly older than the young and somewhat naive Claudio, but equally the “old man” Leonato should stand out as significantly older than the others, including Benedick. Unfortunately, many of Benedick’s lines disappear into the ether early in the production, and although this does improve as the evening continues, I wonder if Campion is a little too theatrical and rehearsed.
The trickery scene with Leonato and Don Pedro (Silas Carson) is comedic gold dust with some fantastic direction from Timothy Sheader combined with admirable performances from the cast. Unfortunately—as with several moments in this production, one moment of fantastic theatre is followed by a slightly disappointing lull. After the wonders of the male trickery scene, the ladies’ subsequent scene is a little less effective. It certainly shows promise in a few gleaming moments of physical comedy from Spiro, but the boys definitely win this battle.
In the program, Sheader mentions his desire to portray the darker side of this seemingly joyous Messina by emphasizing the war between the brothers, Don Pedro and Don John (Tim Steed). Unusually, as the soldiers arrive in the opening scene, Don John, Conrad and Borachio are all bound. As they are released from their bonds, Don Pedro bullies and humiliates his brother with unexpected viciousness. This approach to the brothers’ relationship does two things: it adds complexity to the traditionally-performed Don Pedro, but it also adds a little more meat to the argument of Don John’s anger against his brother and his friends. This is an interesting and refreshing interpretation of the text from Sheader, but yet again a pitfall emerges. For this to work, one would expect Don John to be much more angered and unstable than he appears; instead, Steed comes across as measured and mellow. He delivers the line “It cannot be denied that I am a plain dealing villain” with such lackluster, one would hardly notice it without a fair knowledge of the text.
The singing in the production certainly improves with time. The initial, severe intonation problems during the opening song set the performance off to a bad start. Thankfully, with each song the tuning improves and the group is in harmony by the time Hero’s vigil comes around. I was disappointed Balthasar was excluded from the cast to be replaced by ‘a singer,’ Tim Howar. His performance works well to link scenes and introduce songs within the text, but despite the suitably light and summery nature of David Shrubsole’s compositions, the atmosphere feels rushed. The songs in Much Ado are worthwhile and help to emphasize the thematic basis of the play, but where’s the emphasis if the lyrics are lost?
Beatrice and Benedick’s relationship is one of the wittiest peaks of perfection in Shakespeare’s works, and it’s fair to say that this production cultivates their relationship wonderfully well. When the two begin to tease each other once more, but this time after both have admitted their feelings, a truly strong and lasting bond seems to exist between them. Spiro and Campion are to be commended for creating this rare and difficult moment on stage.
Despite my earlier quibbles with Campion, this production is traditional yet refreshing in its interpretation. It’s filled with vitality and substance, and well worth a trip to the park this summer.