I should start with a disclaimer: this production was coloured by the fact that my companion and I were in the middle of a group of schoolchildren who talked at normal conversational volume throughout the first half, and I was homicidal by the interval. If “shh” could kill… but I digress…
So, my homicidal mania aside, we can return to the actual show. Which was, well, OK. But mediocre Shakespeare is not my idea of a good time, and Carl Heap’s production was not great. What I could hear of the first half (and the lack of audibility was as much the fault of the cast as the acoustics or the raucous children) was witty enough, but there was little spark. Heap had decided to play with the lights up, in deference to how plays would have been performed in Shakespeare’s time – in daylight. Now, this is all well and good if you’re, say, The Globe, and can really honour the whole idea. In a proscenium arch theatre with plush velvet seats and a seven-thirty start? Not so much.
And this is where the production frustrated me: I understand what was Heap was trying to do, and doing Shakespeare “properly” can be a laudable aim, but it was the wrong play, the wrong space, and, frankly, the wrong cast. The actors weren’t bad, just clearly uncomfortable playing to a noisy audience that they could see the whole time. It lead to more posturing, grimacing and hamming than brilliant comic acting, but the verse was nicely-spoken, the innuendo made the most of, and there were some nice moments. The contrast, though, between the more informal style and Victorian staging was odd, and made large parts of the play pantomimic. There was a lot of speaking lines to the audience rather than to other characters, which is not a style of which I am fond, and rather too much ad-libbing and audience participation.
There was a lovely sense of the pervasive mischief of the piece, but it often descended into camp posturing, playing up to the audience, and expecting the laughs to come from “Oh look! He’s hiding! Behind a tiny tree! We can see him! Isn’t it funny!”, rather than making an effort with the acting. Having said that, although unsophisticated, the set pieces were funny, I just felt that more could have been done.
Heap clearly loves the language and encourages actors to play with it,which should be encouraged. However, one wonders if he watched any rehearsals from the back of the stalls: Giulia Galastro’s Beatrice was practically inaudible from row P, and threw away some of her character’s best lines. Shakespeare didn’t write such fiesty women very often, so it seems a shame to waste good insults on the first three rows. My companion and I moved up to the circle at the interval, to escape the chattering, and the sound quality was worse, if anything, although my blood pressure certainly went down. Toby Young’s music was a distraction, too – it did not enhance the action or the dialogue – and the sound levels were wrong.
Oskar McCarthy’s Don John was wooden, and equated “evil” with “scowling”. One wonders if this was his fault or Heap’s. Michael Campbell’s Dogberry was also almost incomprehensible – when a character’s humour lies in their mis-speaking it helps to be to able to hear what they are saying. On the plus side, Nick Ricketts’ raffish Benedick was a delight, moving from cocky to sweet, and earning most of the laughs. He was also, blessedly, loud. Tadhgh Barwell O’Connor played a serviceable Claudio, and Simon Haines leant his Leonato an impressive depth. Mairin O’Hagan’s Hero was enjoyably mischievous, and O’Hagan made Hero a lot more interesting than this pious and wronged heroine is sometimes afforded. She and Galastro made a merry pair, and along with Ellie Nunn’s giggly Margaret and Tamara Astor’s winsome Ursula, actually seemed to be enjoying themselves.