Much Ado About Nothing

William Shakespeare
Wales Actors Company
The National Botanical Gardens, Tywi Valley
(2004)

There is something refreshing about watching a play in the open air. It's a theatrical event uncluttered by elaborate staging and lighting effects and it's much closer to what Shakespeare's audiences experienced.

Having said that, it's a brave company that trudges the highways and byways of Wales performing in castles and opting for open air performances in a climate as unreliable as ours. Luckily on this night, the gamble just about paid off with the rain restricting itself to a fine drizzle.

An enthusiastic audience was not going to be moved by a cold breeze and a spot of rain because they had come to see what has become one of the highlights in the year's cultural calendar. The Wales Actors Company has firmly established itself over the past nineteen years as a company that has the ability to produce drama of a high quality, and this is important in an area like Carmarthenshire which is starved of good theatre.

So even before they begin, this company is on to a winner, because there's an obvious warmth from the audience which stems from their appreciation of what this group is striving to achieve.

This production is set firmly in the sixties. The set is ultra modern with grey aluminium and Perspex influences with photographs of faces that could have come from covers of pop magazines.

The first thing an audience has got to ask itself is how does this setting square with the original text? What relevance, if any, does it have on the play? After all, this play centres on the honour of maids and the importance of protecting their maidenheads before marriage. My recollection of the sixties is of a releasing of sexual constraints although sex before marriage was, and maybe still is, taboo in some areas.

What the sixties did represent was an explosion of ideas in creativity and personal expression giving the young an opportunity to develop ideas through the media of fashion and music. This is where the play begins to work for us. Here we see women firmly at the centre of the action and subordinating men to the roles of gullible fools.

Beatrice, stridently played by Charlotte Rogers, was a confident new-age female with the shortest of mini skirts, which , I am sure had the effect of occasionally distracting some hot blooded males from the text. This was a girl definitely not to be messed with. You would find her at parties, smoking pot and making moves on hapless males. She remains strong right up to the end when she agrees to marry Benedick. It's at that point when I like to see the sensual feminine side of Beatrice which gives her a more rounded character. I didn't quite get that.

For me, Charlotte Rogers helped to draw us into the play by interacting strongly with the audience. A modern audience needs this to help us to tune in to the rhythms and cadences of iambic pentameter. An audience which has become accustomed to the intellectual dross of television drama needs all the help it can get.

Curiously, the play had some resonance with events today. Here we see men of war returning home from a successful campaign only to be misguided into making a tragic decision by relying on false information. Take heed, Mr Blair!

This was a strong ensemble performance. The direction by Paul Garnault was full of pace and vitality. There was a raw energy that ran through the play and a physicality that was clearly enjoyed by this mainly youthful cast.

Zoe Davies as Hero was excitingly feminine, a nice foil for Beatrice. Such a pity she marries Claudio, but there again, she is the perfect woman, a woman who forgives.

Leonarta, admirably played by Abigail Hopkins, was suitably statuesque. She has a presence combined with a sharp wit which makes for a charismatic quality. She also impresses with her guitar playing, a career which she is developing.

What of the men? Having proved their masculinity in fields of war what can they offer in this world of feminine cunning led by Leonarta? They can sit around smoking pot, organising parties and living on past glories.

Paul Garnault created an immediately likeable Benedick, a warm man of intellect who could readily face up to Beatrice and not be taken in by the mini skirt.

Dean Rehman's Don Pedro grew on me as the play progressed as he naturally became more dynamically involved in the plot.

Claudio, played by David Marshalsea, was fine as the heroic youth. Maybe there could have been a little more fire in the belly at times and I'm not sure about how the revelation of Hero's so called infidelity was handled. The scene was positively tragic in feel whereas it can be handled with a subtlety that still lets the comedy show through. It's purely a matter of taste.

I enjoyed the performance of Griff Jameson. His portrayals of Dogberry and the Friar gave him ample scope to demonstrate his infectious comic ability, which was an excellent contrast to his role as the dour serving man.

You can catch this excellent production across Wales during the rest of July and all of August. Where there's a castle that's where they'll be.

A note to funding bodies in Wales. If you don't support groups like this they will simply fade away and that would be a tragedy, not only for Wales, but for the Wales Actors Company.

Tony Layton