Iris Theatre – St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden
I’m not going to tell you the plot again – you should all jolly well be up to speed by now (links) – and you also shouldn’t need me to tell you what Iris is about either. It was a good night for it – warm enough to make the Pimm’s feel like a good idea, not quite as hot and sweaty as Richard III.
The setting was – very loosely – early 1900s, mostly revealing itself in high-waisted trousers and braces for the men* and a mis-matched set of ladies – Hero in a formal layered dress that was reminiscent of Worth, Beatrice in trousers that suited her tomboy nature (and first entrance on a bike, through the crowd, which felt a surprisingly bold move by whoever was in charge of Health & Safety).
The sets each year seem to grow more elaborate – we had a double-height arbour, built around a tree, perfect for Beatrice and Benedict to overhear the conspirators (and solid enough for Benedick, in a frankly surprisingly athletic move, to swing himself up over Leonato’s head at one point). Hero’s tomb in the church was a straight-up work of art, and very good floristry.
You know I love doubling-up, and this production gave us Margaret and Don John (and the Abbess) all in the same actor (Jennifer Clement). The paucity of cast gave her Don John a Richard III, fourth-wall** breaking series of monologues which worked really well. Beatrice and Benedick also warring as Verges and Borachio (both actors favoured a regional accent for their secondary role, so it was also a battle between the Welsh and Scottish) and Hero shared an actor with Dogberry – possibly the most unusual pairing I’ve ever seen.
Nick Howard-Brown was a great Benedick – one of those who you could see clearly grow up over the course of the production – or to be honest (and if you were seated as near the front as I was), purely in a single reaction to Beatrice’s “Kill Claudio”. Very impressive pulling that off and still being heard at the back of a substantial crowd. Having seen him as Clarence and Buckingham in Richard III and a fabulous Feste in Twelfth Night I was having some trouble imagining him in Benedick’s shoes, but while he played to the audience when appropriate he also showed the serious side which Benedick actually has in spades.
Anne-Marie Piazza had all the brightness and lightness I hoped for, and was a really angry Beatrice – something you don’t often see – but my god the rage boiling off her as she swore she would eat Claudio’s heart in the marketplace was such a fantastic contrast to her usual happy-go-lucky manner. As Verges, she also really nailed the audience interaction which helped the whole performance run so smoothly.
Denis Delahunt was Leonato – who let’s face it has one good speech when he tears into his broken-hearted daughter*** and really went all-out with it. Don Pedro gave good heartiness – alas all that seemed left of his character (I missed especially the lines they cut from his scenes with Dogberry).
Claudio (Graeme Dalling) had one of his best moments when Hero sinks down and his first instinct was to rush to her aid and Don Pedro restrained him – a lovely little hint of a man whipped up into un-real fury to abuse Hero so. The other came in his filling in the time as we got in our seats, reading sonnets to random ladies and asking them to mark him out of 10. Gotta love the audience participation! The whole production made us of the sonnets really well – as incidental music for the wedding as well as by Claudio. And Anne-Marie Piazza singing Hero’s lament in the church was a simply beautiful moment outside of any production.
My one to watch was Emma McDonald. As Hero she was sweet, charming, and modest. As Dogberry she was thick, pompous and conceited. Either way, she was the only person who challenged Beatrice and Benedick for domination of the play.
If I were to have one quibble, it would be that Don Pedro, Benedick and Claudio were a distinctly un-soldierly rabble. But the only thing better than an perfect production is one with a tiny flaw…
* Always a good fashion choice.
** Fourth rose-bush, really. The gardens are a show, I should try and get there during the day…
*** I know, this play is problematic.