Open-air theatre is a much-loved Summer pleasure, and Everyman Theatre is back to Sophia Gardens for yet another year of drama in the park. Shakespeare’s comedies, with their sharply witty texts and light-hearted plots, are the perfect fit for the scenery of Sophia Gardens, with its lush greenery and its dancing fireflies, and Much Ado About Nothing is a classic audience favourite for this kind of occasion. Here the play is re-imagined in a Welsh framing at the end of the war, with some minimal intervention on the text to make it fit the new setting – a few names changed, a few lines added. Far from disrupting the mood of the original play, this adds to the playfulness that is part and parcel of Shakespeare’s text, evoking a feeling that must have been not too far from the one originally intended in the text. Likewise, the gender-bending of some of the characters – notably a delightful performance from Sarah Bawler as Dogberry – does not impact the performance negatively nor detract anything from it. A modicum of audience interaction may sound at odds with Shakespeare, but it works here, in the general playfulness of this play, and in the frame of its most comedic interlude, especially as it is not overdone, as such deviations from the text are often at risk of being.
Much Ado About Nothing is a quickfire play favouring verbal wit over plot, which challenges its performers to a relentless pace that must never slow down in order for the production to be successful. This is maintained especially well here in the first half, where charming deliveries, a hint of slapstick, and the occasional bit of ad-libbing manage to engage the attention of the audience continuously, leading to numerous bouts of collective laughter. There is a balance between effective and overdone that is easy to lose in this play, and this production manages to keep it most of the time, without shying away from the rawdier jokes that are in themselves, especially in the comedies, a Shakespeare trademark. The pace did slow down somewhat in the second half, though not so much to spoil the enjoyment of the production. Particular credit must be given to Jess Courtney and Luke Merchant as Beatrice and Benedick respectively, as their characters truly form the backbone of the play and their banter comes across as funny, endearing, and never overdone. Both have an effortless physicality that suits the characters particularly well. Gareth Harris takes the seriousness out of the character of Leonato to restore it when most needed, and Ben Barnard is charming as Claudio. The scene in which the plot is spun to make Benedick and Beatrice fall in love, one of the most well-known and most loved in this play, is a highlight of the production, delivered with near-perfect pacing and some welcome inventiveness.
The movement of the cast across the stage is one of the strengths of this production, demonstrating how very much can be done with very little, provided that everyone is, as in this case, well-timed and well choreographed. The whole cast must be also commended in keeping their concentration during an unfortunate bout of ambient noise – occupational hazard of open-air theatre, which was handled gracefully through the end of the second half.
This take on Much Ado About Nothing is an endearing, light-hearted performance that doesn’t fall into the trap, far too common with Shakespeare productions these days, of taking itself too seriously, but instead embraces the joyful comedy of the text and has some genuine fun with it. It is a perfect fit for a summer evening in the park, and a great choice to entertain people of all ages.
Until July 20