In Trinity Term, many garden plays spring up, using the beautiful landscapes and hidden corners of Oxford colleges as their setting. Attending a garden play is a special experience, with a feeling of being transported to 19th century when such entertainments would have been popular. Whatever the play or setting, there's always a sense of excitement when going to a garden play in summer.
With chilly evenings following balmy days, blankets are recommended – and the Worcester team kindly provided quite a few. Cleverly insuring against possible rain, the play is staged on the terrace of
In order for audiences to find their way, there was a beautiful trail consisting of flowers in small transparent vases and candles which were lit after the show to guide us back along the banks of a beautiful lake. Thumbs up to set designers (Anna Spence, Holly Harbron, Yasmine Foyster), as well as to production manager Eve Stollery for being so inventive – it certainly helped us get into the mood for the performance.
The pavilion itself was beautifully adorned using the same flowers, inviting us straight into Shakespeare’s imagined
Overall, the effort put into the production was quite impressive, with the lines being well-articulated, and specific mise-en-scènes being diligently thought through. The pavilion terrace offered a wonderful setting for a play full of disguises, plots, traps and eavesdropping. These amusing moments were cleverly used by the director Agnes Pethers to bring out the best of Shakespearean comedy: Benedick (Roman Marshall) overhearing Leonato (Jonny Ball), Claudio (Toby Smith) and Don Pedro (Christian Edwards) speaking about Beatrice’s desperate love for him was an especially fine moment, with Marshall hanging on to the railings of the terrace or hiding behind one of its columns, while avidly trying to hear every little bit of conversation.
I must praise the exceptional acting of Jonny Ball as Leonato: he stood out as the beating heart of the production. He employed his acting arsenal in comic scenes throughout the play while also showing the kindness and considerate characteristics of his character, the only one in the play whose interests are vested entirely in others, with tact, wit and true acting talent. Also impressive was Alec McQuarrie as constable Dogberry, who investigates the case of Don John, and the slander that nearly succeeds in tearing Claudio and Hero apart, with restrained humour. The real dog in his hands (fed very graciously by Leonato in one of the final scenes) was an added bonus!
There were other good moments, including Antonia (Hannah Patient) in her righteous anger for Hero’s sake and Margaret (Esme Sanders) in the comic hauteur that hides her wish to be wooed. Strangely enough, this play does not leave the whole Benedick-Beatrice affair imprinted in our minds, although it starts well with ruses on both sides (male and female) to make characters fall in love with each other. Otherwise, the director’s attention is all with the Claudio-Hero story. The last scene was very funny indeed, as it was again Jonny Ball at his best, being tragi-comical in a true Shakespearean manner.
And what is Much Ado About Nothing without the pivotal Benedick-Beatrice story, so rich with potential for both actors to plot the development of their love through the play? Here we are not even sure they fall in love with each other, and if they do, it is unclear why. So, overall, quite a solid student play with lots of funny moments, but with only one actor really shining, it was hard for the director to bring out the sparkle of love at the heart of this piece. As always with Shakespeare, you cannot go with comedy only, as it becomes a bit amateurish if you don’t succeed in bringing out all the interconnected layers of the text. However, congrats to the creative company and the cast for making this an exuberant performance. Although without the deep and lasting impression one always hopes for, it was still a nice and entertaining evening, and the small candles with their warm yellow light leading us on our way back to the gates were romantic and beautiful.