Messina, Italy; the end of a war signals celebration: colour, dancing. Caution is thrown to the wind, there’s music in the air, and now that the sexes are re-united: the inevitable sparks and sexual frisson.
Normal life resumes in the sunshine, “al fresco”. As champagne corks pop, the rituals of courtship are rekindled: there’s whispering, giggling and flirting behind masks. Most of the tittle-tattle is good-natured & harmless. For Beatrice and Benedick it means the resumption of their unresolved battle of wits.
But there’s one shadow: an unwanted guest is lurking in the wings. It’s not his party but he’s determined to make others cry. Will he succeed in in subverting this comedy for his own end, or will the dance sweep everyone off their feet? “Play, music!”
My daughter and I had ringside seats for Petersfield Shakespeare Festival’s latest outdoor production, a witty and inventive re-imagining of Much Ado About Nothing in post-war Sicily. Our neighbour, like us lounging on rugs thoughtfully-provided by the production team, was an actress whose boyfriend is starring in the same play coincidentally running at London’s Globe theatre. She’d been to both, and this for her was an even better experience than the Southbank show.
You could see why. This had all the hallmarks of a PSF production: intelligent scripting and direction, deceptively simple set design, pace and energy and above all a cast of fine comic actors working selflessly for each other.
Their sense of fun was infectious. David McCarthy channelled Chico Marx as bumbling police constable Dogberry. Beatrice, played by the versatile Amy Allen, got the biggest laughs of the night from children in the audience while attempting to disguise her tall frame while eavesdropping. Her counterpart Benedick, the impressive Jon-Paul Rowden, was even funnier in his role as a confirmed bachelor bowing to the inevitable.
Both actors along with most of the cast were reunited after last year’s PSF production of Midsummer Night’s Dream. Audiences still talk about the full orange moon that rose as if on cue, heightening the hallucinogenic power of that magical performance.
This year, festival venue Wyld’s Farm came through with the special effects yet again, a brooding rainstorm during Friday evening’s performance breaking just as the carefree partying and mischief making in Much Ado About Nothing takes a darker turn. It quickly passed, thankfully for those of us out on the grass, but it helped punctuate the action as did the clever use of a jukebox playing 50s hits which the players fired up to set the mood between scenes.
I enjoyed the poised comic performances of Joy Brook as Leonata and Harriet Benson as Ursula. They even manage to keep a straight face when the excellent Crispin Glancy and Albert de Jongh – Claudio and the prince Don Pedro – rage impotently at them as ‘toothless old women’, their evident sophisticated glamour underlining which way the pendulum had swung in this battle of the sexes.
Another brilliant show from producers Lucy Hollis and Clare Glancy, director Chris Hollis and their Petersfield Shakespeare Festival team, who are making a name for themselves far beyond this lovely corner of Hampshire.
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“One couldn’t possibly have a better stage setting than up on that hilltop; it was completely magical with a full moon rising on cue towards the end. The production was so professional, slick and funny, clearly enunciated, just perfect.”
“I saw your production twice and it was fabulous. I would have come a third time if I had not been busy.”
“The cast were magnificent, and the setting and ambience perfect. I came away elated.”
“It was beautiful storytelling; uncluttered, clear and honest.”
“Every contact we had with PSF surpassed our expectations, from the person who got us tickets when we were unable to do so ourselves, to the guy who helped us park our two cars next to each other, and the guys who moved a table for us for our picnic supper. Everyone was very kind, helpful and friendly.
And the show itself was wonderful – the enthusiasm of the cast was infectious and we enjoyed it enormously. ”
Wylds Farm is the most glorious venue – banks of wild flowers, beautiful mature trees and the coolest bar with fairy lights hanging all over the place, live music before the show, fire pits and squashy sofas. The company of young actors delivered performances that were fast, funny, moving, atmospheric and skilled. Forget the National and the R.S.C. – come down to Hampshire and see how it SHOULD be done!