Much Ado About Nothing

William Shakespeare
Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park
(2009)

Production photo

Summer in London usually opens with audiences sharing a midsummer night’s dream backed by twinkling fairy lights as the sun goes down on the Open Air Theatre.

This year artistic director Timothy Sheader has cleverly chosen to begin his season with Shakespeare’s wordy comedy of love, with two sparkly performances from Samantha Spiro’s spirited Beatrice and Sean Campion’s nimble, confirmed bachelor Benedick, who delivers his lines with great clarity, staccato-style like his namesake Connery.

Their winning stage partnership is set between the citrus trees of a Messina orchard, with ripe fruit tumbling down as their well-intentioned friends do their wicked worst to bring these reluctant lovers into a state of romantic and marital bliss.

That other troubled partnership of Claudio, portrayed with jaunty bravado by Ben Mansfield, and Anneika Rose as a pretty virginal Hero, plays second fiddle to a cabal of chaps led by Silas Carson’s dashing Don Pedro, and the distaff delights of Sarah Ingram’s Ursula and her trio of girly gossips.

Sheader’s dynamic staging has benefited from an outstanding creative team, notably with the timbered circular arrangement of sloping footways leading to a central rostrum designed by Philip Witcomb.

To this Simon Mills lends magical lighting atmospherics that instantly set the mood of each scene, plus ensemble movement by choreographer Ann Yee which not only gives dynamic shape to the production, as the opposing household factions arrive downstage, but also provides rhythmic, storytelling dance sequences set to an original score by David Shrubsole.

Top marks too to Deirdre Clancy for her superb costume contributions from gilded animal masks for the dinner dance, to her character-focusing effects of cut, colour, texture and style that keep the identities sharply defined.

Fresh thinking has also gone into the potentially plodding Dogberry comedy scenes which here raise happy laughs from ancient gags, thanks largely to Anthony O'Donnell’s Constable of the Watch, who even flashes his orange London bus pass to establish his seniority and age. This is comic playing of the highest order that turns on a sixpence (or a height-enhancing orange box) rather than the usual tedium of bluster and broad business.

But finally it is thanks to Spiro and Campion that the evening takes off on a wonderful arc of romance and banter, she kicking up her heels to reveal her underpinnings while he struggles to cope with courtly footwear, donned in her honour — I even wiped away a complicit tear of happiness as they at last came together in a warm embrace.

This is a partnership that will continue to send its delighted audiences out on a high note of romance and joy and into a warm, moonlit evening in a London park.

Reviewer: John Thaxter