February 26, 2012, by Peter Kirwan

Much Ado about Nothing (Demi–Paradise Productions) @ Lancaster Castle

Writing about web page http://www.demiparadiseproductions.co.uk/index.html

Location can be a blessing or a curse for a production. Site-specific theatre is one thing, where the play is written or adapted specifically for the area in which it will be realised; but Shakespeare transplanted into grand locations can run the risk of not mapping consistently onto its surroundings, or of the scenery overwhelming the performance. As such, I was interested to see how Demi-Paradise Productions managed the balance in their new Much Ado about Nothing, staged at the spectacular Lancaster Castle.

It’s fair to say that the scenery was the star of the production, and to its credit the company had thought carefully about the arrangement of space and the specificity of location. The central aborted wedding scene took place in the adjacent Priory Church, decorated as if for a wedding, and the splendour of the surroundings gave Claudio’s violent rejection of Hero an almost sacrilegious feel. The working Crown Court of the castle provided the location for the arraignment of Conrade and Borachio, with the audience seated as jurors and witnesses while the defendants took their appropriate places in the boxes. More often, however, it was the shape of the spaces rather than their specificity that impressed. The famous Shire Hall in which the opening and closing scenes were set, with its splendid roof and portraits, rather distracted from the action. More successful were the two overhearing scenes, located in an ancient torture chamber, Hadrian’s Tower. While the memories of that place (chains hung from the walls) jarred with the tone of the scenes, the cramped quarters force an intimacy on actors and audience that drew out attention to the nuances of the performances.

Despite the distractions of the environment, and of the necessity to undertake reasonable walks between scenes, the performances still shone through. This was a traditional production, with a generically “period” setting that tended most strongly towards Regency (thus evoking an Austenian feel in the country dancing and wedding preparations). Costumes established that this was a play about the English privileged classes, and the company maintained a holiday atmosphere throughout. While the very safe romantic (if not Romantic) approach risked dullness, the company’s facility with the dynamics of its space benefitted it tremendously.

The standout was the first, cramped overhearing scene. With the audience arranged in traverse on crowded benches, the actors had a tiny gangway in which to perform. The torture chamber sat at the foot of the tower, and a viewing gallery above allowed Richard Hand’s Benedick to appear early, looking down on the trapped audience below. When the lower level filled with the men, Benedick sneaked down and spent the scene moving around the audience, peering out and, in one memorable moment, screaming as James Jowett’s Claudio stamped hard on his outstretched hand, his voice blending with Claudio’s own shout of “Oh!” In the tiny environment, though, the actors were able to layer their performances with expression. George Telfer’s Don John entered the space to report Hero’s infidelity, and Claudio stepped in close to him, their noses practically touching, their eyes gazing hard into one another’s. The energy and intensity of this moment, and others liked it, made this a very immediate Much Ado, foregrounding the imaginative psychology and emotional import of the plot.

The same could be said of the wedding scene, in which the three-dimensional space allowed for a degree of audience choice in what was viewed. Immediately prior to the scene, some of my companions noticed Don John and Nicola Jayne Ingram’s Margaret in the foyer of the castle, the former giving the latter harsh instruction; a moment I missed as we were swept past to the church. Inside the church, we were able to watch Margaret reacting, ashen-faced, to Hero’s disgrace, and the face of the priest as he stepped back slightly from the action and began assessing his options.

The majority of the performances had gusto if not experimental invention. Gemma North’s Beatrice was unglamorous but lively, quick-witted and with an amusing range of scornful facial expressions. Hand’s Benedick, meanwhile, was wired and cutting, with an unusual tendency towards maturity that manifested in his calm, quiet responses to Beatrice and Claudio in the second half. Yet the two had clear fun with their wooing, Benedick in particular revelling in the silliness of the rhyming scene. Lisa-Marie Hoctor’s Hero was surprisingly similar in energy and confidence to Beatrice, taking a lively role in dancing and plotting, and in manipulating Claire Lever’s Ursula during the overhearing scene, who was deliberately presented as an appalling actress to add to the comic effect. Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, was Jowett’s Claudio, who had an aggressive impetuosity to him that rendered the character slightly dangerous when squaring up to Don John and Benedick. Claudio’s intensity and self-assurance made the revelation of Don John’s plot a particular blow, reducing him to a broken shadow of himself.

Among the other performances, Telfer’s Don John stood out: a dignified, older villain with a sardonic and authoritative air. In an early scene, Nicholas Camm’s Borachio overstepped himself with the ingenuity of his plot and the seated John held out his hand to be helped up. As Borachio pulled him to his feet, John suddenly stepped forward and forced Borachio back against a wall, re-establishing his authority in what felt to me an unnecessarily physical show of strength. However, there remained a sense throughout the play of the threat posed by John.

More amusing were Howard Chadwick’s Dogberry and Ingram’s Verges, played as bickering husband and wife. These scenes were played as pure slapstick, and were often amusing, particularly in Dogberry’s patronising apologies for his wife. However, their scenes were often milked long past acceptability, particularly at the opening of the arraignment scene when the two characters mimed along to an offstage chorus of folk songs for no discernible or amusing reason. The more Punch-and-Judy-esque aspects of these characters did serve to mitigate any seriousness occasioned in the main plot however.

The strength of the local actors, almost all with broad Lancashire accents, was in their easy familiarity with each other. The scripted improvisation that characterises Much Ado, a play in which characters frequently ‘forget’ lines or misspeak, here felt easy and natural, the company evoking the formal dynamics of the Regency-era dating game and creating a sense of genuine investment in each other. This is, I think, one of the more difficult effects for an ensemble to achieve, and the seemingly genuine reactions went a long way towards helping an embattled audience warm to the play.

The main problem of the production was its length. At around three and a half hours, and with a great deal of walking and movement between scenes, the action felt dragged out and too leisurely, becoming at times almost pageant-like in its slow progression of scenes. As a tour of Lancaster Castle this was phenomenal; as a coherent production of Much Ado, it lacked the focus and pace to be truly great. However, some fine performances and an inventive use of space made this a pleasant experience. While not revolutionising the play for me, it did serve to bring a personal touch to the play while also showcasing a glorious venue.

Posted in Theatre review