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Much Ado About Nothing

A sparkling new production of one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, including a masked ball with stylish tangos and fiery flamencos.
Creation Theatre Company, Unlocked Castleyard, Oxford Castle, Fri June 13th - Sat August 16th 2008

June 18, 2008
Oxford’s open air Shakespeare season started a while ago, but it never really seems to really swing into action until Creation have unveiled their first offering of the summer. At their best, they can create accessible, universally entertaining theatre without sacrificing a note of linguistic wit – and this was Creation Theatre Company working pretty much at their best.

It helped that they were playing to their – and their location’s – strengths. Much Ado About Nothing is a summer fun comedy with plenty of opportunity for music and dancing, and thus exactly the sort of thing the company does very well indeed. In the airy, open space of the castle the choice of a Spanish backdrop to the action made total sense (although it would be a brave director who went for 12th century Finland), as well as allowing for some hot quasi-flamenco dance numbers from the cast, and some very slightly over-obtrusive guitar music (one of the speakers was placed, rather unfortunately, directly behind us).

It’s the firecracker combination of Benedick and Beatrice that forms the heart of the play, and this version did not disappoint. Nicholas Osmond played Benedick with a rangy, gurning comic energy, while Lizzie Hopley (who, it should be mentioned, will be replaced by another actress in July) huffed mightly as Beatrice. Both were admirably willing to make themselves look like idiots in the service of their art, and Charlotte Conquest directed them with an excellent ear, and eye, for their sparkling dialogue, giving them bits of physical business that enhanced the verbal comedy. Even better, both of them managed the difficult task of remaining convincing during their two astonishing reversals of character – they were as interesting to watch love-struck and grief-stricken as they were in their earlier sparring.

Having mentioned the two leads, however, it should be noted that what’s really impressive here is the ensemble playing. This is a cast that gels, and their warm, relaxed rapport onstage speaks of an admirable lack of the sort of conflicting egos that can sometimes make even the most professional productions rather tense to watch. They were enjoying themselves, and as a consequence so were we.
Creation’s Open Air Theatre Festival 2008 has opened with Much Ado About Nothing at the Oxford Castle Unlocked courtyard, which will run until 16 August.

Don Pedro and his deputies, Claudio and Benedick, have just returned from a successful battle. Leonato, with his niece Beatrice and daughter Hero, welcome them and invite them to stay for a month and to have a masked party. Benedick & Beatrice bicker as soon as they meet (they’re clearly in love!). Claudio’s romantic feelings for Hero are also clear as soon as their eyes meet. This witty romcom is then thrown off the rails by the schemes of Don Pedro’s villainous brother, Don John.

This is all played with the skill and enthusiasm which marks Creation at its best, with excellent central performances from Lizzie Hopley and Nicholas Osmond as the warring could-be lovers, Beatrice and Benedick. Their performances are perfectly timed and pitched to bring out the very real wit of the play.

Olivia Mace and Tom Goulding manage to bring Hero and Claudio out from under Beatrice and Benedick’s shadow, to make them real players in the piece. They are supported by a strong team, with Gregory Cox making a likeable Leonato and with a genuinely funny Dogberry from Gordon Cooper. It would be invidious not to mention Gordon Cooper’s cool Don Pedro, Caroline Devlin’s cheeky Margaret - and Kevin Murphy as almost everyone else.

Director Charlotte Conquest has set her production in a small village in rural Spain, which allows her to make use of “a male dominated society, still much preoccupied with.. family honour and female infidelity”. This also allows for some stylish costume choices, with flamenco-style dresses for the ladies and co-ordinated suits/shirts and associated bling for the men. My only niggle, in the whole show, is that it was perfectly clear that Beatrice was still wearing a bulky white towel when she was ‘in the shower’ … maybe a slightly thicker shower curtain?

The backdrop of Oxford Prison’s stone walls and arched, barred windows also enhances the Mediterranean setting to very good effect.

Creation is now a real part of Oxford life – as well as their programme of productions, they also run an impressive programme of workshops to encourage a love for Shakespeare’s language and imagery. ‘Much Ado’ shows Creation at their best – inventive, versatile, energetic … an excellent way to spend a summer evening.
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