OK, this is a truly novel and amusing way to do Shakespeare. Weird, quirky, brilliant. The actors have learned all the lines, but nothing else is certain. They are to use props supplied by members of the audience, and sometimes use members of the audience as props. They might not necessarily be performing in the theatre. They might not be playing the same role. The director will give them different instructions every night – sometimes every scene – and is present to the cast and audience like an impish dungeon-master. There’s no stage and no seats, just an arena which can be changed in an instant. The sheer fun and the nervous high generated by this cheerful philosophy of improvisation (the only thing they can’t improvise is the lines, but they never repeat the way they deliver them) makes for a huge buzz, a blast-furnace of energy, which in many ways creates a powerful and memorable performance. So last night, for example, the director (Sam Bright) informed the cast and audience just as the play was about to start that the first act would be performed in the garden and not in the theatre; he invited the audience to choose which actors would play the Friar, the Messenger, and the Sexton, and to nominate a style for the Watch (the audience chose that they should play as Ninjas) and generally creates a kind of collaboration with the audience that quickly gets them on-side. Of course, the actors are also the audience, since every performance is different and they are, as it were, watching for the first time – they certainly found much of last night’s performance hugely amusing.
I must say that the cast were extraordinary – almost without exception superb actors and just brimming with energy and charisma. You can probably hear a ‘but’ coming. The downside is that everything tends to be played for laughs, and the audience eggs the actors on to mug more and more outrageously. Thus the great climatic scene between Benedick and Beatrice was completely lost in gales of laughter and the gimmicky trick of having them pull members of the audience out and address them as each other. Beatrice even forgot her best line. The ‘comic’ scenes with Dogberry and Verges and the Watch, which usually come over as a teeny bit tedious in traditional productions, were rendered hilarious, at least to the student members of the audience, by the director’s instruction that no actor could deliver a line unless he or she was sitting on the knee of an audience member. The result was some utterly over-the-top hammification by Dogberry (John-Mark Philo), who improvised being much more interested in his human seat than the scene and ended up dry-humping the poor chap (who was later overheard good-humouredly threatening to ‘get’ him).
Second act in the theatre, third act in the café, fourth and fifth in the theatre – a lot of time was spent by the audience traipsing from place to place, a bit tedious. For the final scene, the audience had to sit in the middle of the space, while the actors acted around them outside the circle. This was very tiresome, as you had to constantly change position to see who was speaking. These are quibbles – I think what I’m saying is that I’m too old for this sort of thing. To judge by the reception, last night’s audience (which included at least one movie star) were ecstatically appreciative. So you should go if you’re a student; and even if you’re a grumpy old git like me, there are still performances to relish and amaze, particularly James Corrigan as Benedick and Lindsay Dukes as Beatrice. They are the sort of actors you can’t take your eyes off, hugely charismatic and also very good-looking. Raymond Blankenhorn did a splendid job with the difficult part of Don John, and Hannah Martin as Margaret has one of the most beautiful voices I’ve ever heard in student theatre. Good lord, this is a long review. I’d better stop now.
Andrea Hopkins (DI Reviewer), 14/05/09
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