Pros: A charming and talented cast performs one of Shakespeare’s best comedies on a perfect summer’s day.
Cons: Low flying pigeons and wasps can be a nuisance.
BurntOut Theatre specialises in site specific productions of classic plays in London and the South East. Russell Square Gardens would therefore seem to be the ideal location for such an event. However, I felt some trepidation making my way to the performance area. It’s rained at virtually every outdoor event I’ve ever attended. Thankfully, the weather stayed fine and my spell was well and truly broken. Initially, it was difficult to see how a play would be staged in the gardens. Two canopies and a string of bunting marking out the audience area were the only visible signs of activity.
However, as a surprisingly large audience began to build, the band struck up and a gloriously original production began to unfold. While the script stayed faithful to the Bard’s original, the setting moved from 16th Century Messina to 1920s England. A five piece swing band provided the musical backdrop and a trapeze artist suspended from a nearby tree added a novel distraction.
Resplendent in Royal Navy uniform, Don Pedro and his officers, Benedick and Claudio, return victorious from a war against his half-brother Don Jon, who has reluctantly joined him. So begins the tale of two intertwined love stories. We have the purely romantic liaison between Leonata’s daughter, Hero and Claudio. In contrast, Hero’s cousin Beatrice and Benedick are in a perpetual state of denial, tormenting each other over failed amorous encounters. Claudio falls deeply in love with Hero and decides to court her. Despising love and marriage, Benedick tries to talk his friend out of the relationship. However, Don Pedro encourages the marriage and uses a masquerade ball to woo Hero on Claudio’s behalf. With his nuptials in place, Claudio and cohorts resolve to make Beatrice and Benedick fall in love. Meanwhile, Don Jon still smarting over his defeat sees the opportunity for mischief and tries to wreck the wedding.
With most of the cast doubling up, the pace of costume change was remarkable as they discreetly emerged from behind a green canopy. With astute direction, you don’t notice actors walking around the perimeter to enter the performance area. The cast was excellent throughout and coped admirably with the distractions of performing outdoors. Half of London’s pigeon population seemed to descend on us; dogs barking, babies crying and mobiles going off were all major offenders. But nothing distracted the cast who remained word perfect, even using canine interference to adlib at one point. They showed enthusiasm and a masterful command of story and script. It seems invidious to single out individuals, but special mention must go to Clemmie Reynolds, who combined the role of Hero/Conrade and co-director with apparent ease. Sam Wright was also a brilliant Don Jon/Dogberry and invariably got the biggest reaction from the audience.
While a great amount of planning and rehearsal has gone into this production, it feels spontaneous and evokes one of the great Hollywood musical clichés….let’s put on a show…let’s do it right here!! It was a delightful way to spend a Saturday afternoon and I would thoroughly recommend it to any theatregoer. Take a picnic with you and enjoy some great performers in action. But watch out for those pigeons!
Author: William Shakespeare
Directors: Clemmie Reynolds and James Ball
Producers: Charlotte Amey, Clemmie Reynolds and Stephanie Shepherd
Box Office: 01483 444 333
Booking link: http://www.ticketsource.co.uk/event/52099
Booking until: 16-20 July 2014 at the Wintershall Estate, Surrey