Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, London NW1
  Opened 1 June, 2009

It is only natural that modern sensibilities have problems with some aspects of the worlds of Shakespeare’s comedies. And grappling with this in staging is all well and good… except, I maintain, that it seldom works when done at the expense of the actual comedy. That’s strike one. Strike two is that a June evening in Regent’s Park simply doesn’t seem the time and place to probe much below the surface: the Pimm’s goes better with festive chuckles.
For the first half-hour or so, this was the attitude with which I watched Timothy Sheader’s opening production of this summer’s season in the park. The laughs, I felt, were being short-changed by the directorial line that the men are to blame for all the unpleasantnesses here. Notwithstanding that, in Samantha Spiro and Sean Campion, Sheader has a top-notch Beatrice/Benedick pairing, I felt there should be more.
The first stage in my conversion came with the twin eavesdropping scenes in which each of the couple is gulled into believing that the other is in love with them. As usual these are the occasion of some lively physical business, with Campion repeatedly braining himself and Spiro accidentally shaking half the fruit off the orange and lemon trees on the stage. Thereafter, my appreciation of these two performances simply grew. Campion’s Benedick has a persona that is always “on”, and his growing love for Beatrice is an account of a man gradually locating his true self behind the posturing. Spiro has the combination of intelligence and vivacity that enables her to inhabit every nuance of Beatrice’s lines, and even her (rare) silences. The duologue in which they confess to each other, and then like a bolt from the blue Beatrice demands of Benedick, “Kill Claudio”, draws laughter without betraying the enormity of the ultimatum.
Ben Mansfield’s Claudio is in any case a callow, unsympathetic youth whose love for Hero seems little more than an affectation. Even Anthony O’Donnell gets laughs out of the now wincesomely unfunny Dogberry scenes, largely through the business of standing on a box to boost his squat frame a few inches when talking to his underlings in the city watch or to their prisoners. And by the end Sheader’s production has proven itself not too dark for a summer evening, but an appealingly piquant blend of humour and contemplation.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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