Dean’s Yard (Westminster Abbey)
Such excitement there was too about this show – two helicopters hovering overhead, and the Houses of Parliament even put on a firework display near the end. The chaos (both scripted and additional) was ably managed by a cast who were universally excellent at making themselves heard and felt*. Not only that, but they were naturally funny – managing to get a laugh out of the audience when urging us to buy programmes before the play had even begun – and Beatrice’s corpsing when Benedick stopped mid-scene was entirely forgiveable, and didn’t hold the action up since we were waiting for that damn helicopter to move off in any case.
It was a cast of five so there was doubling up! So much doubling up! I wondered if the play mightn’t’ve flowed better with a judicious cut or two – but I wonder if the length were needed to accommodate the lightning quick costume changes and myriad entrances and exits. All the characters were really well defined without lapsing into caricatures (and Chris Laishley managed to pull off – and keep in order – an impressive set of accents for his parts). The costuming was excellent** but not needed to be able to separate who was who.
The staging was a very clever multi-level number which allowed for an excellent (and necessary) flow of characters and scene, had a vaguely Mediterranean feel, and the requisite props for shenanigans in the trapping scenes.***
But back to the doubling. The absolute best was Nicola Foxfield as both Beatrice and Claudio – giving an interesting perspective on the two sides of Benedick as David Sayers played off the same person in two very different ways. We had a very funny moment with a body-double in a terrible wig and no real attempt at ventriloquism when the two characters simply had to be on stage together (the only possible alternative to Twelfth Night’s anticipated-and-sadly-absent fight scene) and by contrast absolute heartbreak when Rachel O’Hare’s Hero was denounced – the absence of Beatrice leaving her the only female character onstage and without any support beyond a vague amiability from Benedick. Hero’s line calling “O, God defend me! How I am beset!” has never rung more true.****
By contrast, “Kill Claudio” got a definite laugh from the audience, and from Benedick, assuming presumably this was more of Beatrice’s biting wit. This was one of my favourite moments from Sayers (leaving aside his Borachio) – he seemed to go from the slightly petulant fool he had appeared so far to the man Beatrice needed, and the tongue-lashing he later gave Dons Pedro and Claudio was blistering.
Talking of blistering, Chris Willis was a surprisingly angry friar given the lack of emotional investment he should have had in the situation. His Don Pedro was mostly the lovely noble man we all want to sigh over, which made the turn to the vicious as infuriating as it usually is.
As well as Hero, O’Hare gave us a fine comedic Dogberry, absolutely infuriated by Verges, the pair of them taking the watch scenes down the full Tom-and-Jerry path (complete with frying pan and comedy sound effects). Personally I think they might have done better to trust the lines a little more – but I suspect it played well with the younger audience members who we didn’t seem to have too many of on a Friday night. And some lines are not to be trusted – “were she an aged crone” sat much better than “were she an Ethiop” from Claudio.
It was a merry hour or three. Welcome back, theatre, I have missed you!
* Look, this isn’t faint praise. Plenty of actors don’t seem to manage on the telly, let alone on a stage in a square in the middle of London.
** The ladies dresses were great and so was Leonato’s coat.
*** You know the ones I mean – where the men lie to Benedick while pretending they don’t know he’s there and the women do likewise to Beatrice. Do they have an unofficial official name and I just don’t know it?
**** Although I don’t why the decision was made to have Beatrice wail so loudly before Benedick and she started talking when it only drew attention to the fact she hadn’t wept all this while as she was too busy being Claudio…