Writer: William Shakespeare
Composer and Musical Director: Olly Fox
Director: Bill Buckhurst
Reviewer: Abbie Rippon
Picnics at the ready; pop open the prosecco and uncork the Malbec! Sit back, relax and enjoy your journey to Messina at the Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre.
Written in 1598, when women were expected to stay chaste and subservient in a world ruled by men, the story of Hero’s slander, around which this play centres will always be relevant to an audience. It resonates now, possibly more so than when first written. Highlighting the gender conflict which permeates the core of this classic play, director Bill Buckhurst chooses to set the play in 1950s rural Italy, in a time and place where gender politics and religious power held real sway over society.
His choice works; not only does it add fire to Shakespeare’s words but has allowed designer Rhys Jarman to create a colourful, vibrant world in which many of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters can meddle, gossip and play. The cheeky cherubs lining the entrances to the theatre, the topiary and twinkling lights put you in mind of drinking Chianti as the sun sets over the vineyards and villas of southern Italy.
Shakespeare’s comic tale follows the love story and unlikely demise of Hero, who is (albeit falsely) accused of wanton behaviour before her marriage to Claudio. But it is the stubborn, spiky, almost unwilling passion between Beatrice and Benedick (played by Emily Pithon and Alex Mugnaioni) which has the audience hooked. Pithon’s Beatrice is a strong-minded woman who knows her own will. She is not so hard skinned that an audience can’t empathise with her. In a man’s world, this Beatrice holds herself with dignity and a sharp tongue which makes her more than a match for any macho patriarch that the bard could every write for her. Her match, however, comes not in the form of chauvinistic stud, but in Mugnaioni’s bolshy but blithering Benedick. His performance is simply exquisite. Superb comic timing, beautiful interpretation of Shakespeare’s prose and on top of this, one of the most hilarious physical performance’s you’ll see in a long time. He really is ‘horribly in love’.
Some of the cast lack the physical and subtleties that make Pithon and Mugnaioni’s partnership so strong, however, this is a very strong ensemble performance. Laura Dalgleish’s Dogberry has the audience rolling in the aisles with her witticisms and flirtations. She looks like a brownie gone wild in her military dress and leather hat, just the comic respite needed during the more serious scenes of the second half.
The character relationships are thoughtfully played, at times the blocking falls into the trap of having the actors wandering in circles, so that all of the audience’ gets a chance to see their faces’ in the theatre in the round. The audience doesn’t need this pandering to, however, this doesn’t distract too much.
What the production does do is veer away from the notion that Hero and Claudio, after their trials and tribulation, will enjoy a ‘happy ever after’. This choice to stray from the fairytale ending is fitting. Gone is the time when a man can dishonour a woman and still believe he is entitled to be honoured and obeyed.
Laughter, entertainment and food for thought. Just what a night at the theatre should be.
Runs in rep until 26 August 2018 | Image: Contributed