Ludlow Castle, Shropshire
Opened 23 June
, 2007

The Shropshire market town of Ludlow hosts an arts festival each June and July, the flagship event of which is an open-air Shakespeare production in the Norman-built inner bailey of Ludlow Castle. On a balmy summer evening, with swallows arcing overhead and church bells ringing out, it can make for a great theatrical idyll. However, I have also experienced rain and wind that punish the cast, batter the audience and turn the event into a middle-aged theatregoing equivalent of the Glastonbury rock festival. This year's midsummer storms did not augur well for my matinee visit; a couple of days earlier, the nearby town of Wellington had even had its own twister.

In the event, the skies lowered throughout the afternoon but disgorged only a couple of brief showers of spitting rain, dampening neither the spirits nor the clothes of the audience or the cast of Glen Walford's production. Not that some of the actors had that many clothes to get wet: most of the female population of Walford's Ephesus seem to favour diaphanous harem garb, in keeping with a design by Rodney Ford that turns the bailey into a Hanna-Barbera cartoon version of an exotic Eastern port. As the Antipholus and Dromio twins, sundered years earlier, find themselves in the same city and are repeatedly mistaken for each other, they are subjected to numerous belly-dance-style pelvic wiggles and thrusting tushes. Jonathan Markwood as Antipholus of Syracuse may claim that he "doth abhor" his Ephesian twin's wife Adriana, but earlier he shows a distinct lack of reluctance when she unleashes her full siren arsenal to entice him back to "their" home. When the cause of the confusion is finally revealed and Adèle Lynch's Adriana gasps, "I see two husbands," we can see her realising the possibilities. As Adriana's sister Luciana, Louise Shuttleworth (no relation) is deliberately too good to be true: she may bat her eyelids in virtuous innocence, but this inflames A. of S. to even more amorous excesses.

Walford has realised that performances need to be vocally and gesturally large to carry across this space, which is a lot harder to play than it may look; she also has an awareness of the production's place as part of a festival, which has sometimes been missing in the past. This translates in practice into big vaudevillean performances, of the kind that think "subtleties" are captions on foreign films. I must admit this was not initially to my taste. Nor did it seem to be wowing the audience: although the school parties that constituted over half the crowd seemed attentive, there were few of the big laughs that came so regularly in, for instance, Christopher Luscombe's Plautine-farce treatment of the same play outdoors at Shakespeare's Globe last summer.

But gradually we were won over. Walford concentrates the comedy in the twin manservants, played by Roy Holder and Matthew Devitt; the latter has an additional credit as "comic techniques director" and shows his mettle with an interpolated routine in which he uses a length of rope as everything from a double-bass to a Hitler moustache. Nor does my earlier jibe about lack of subtlety apply to Carol Sloman as the Abbess, mischievously delivering her lines about lust as "A sin prevailing much in youthful men/Who give their eyes the liberty of gazing" straight to a bank of schoolboys, not one of whom twigged that she was taking the mickey out of them. And during that final scene (of a surprisingly brisk rendition, at barely two hours including interval), the sun at last came out to ensure that the production, like the story, ended happily.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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