Much Ado About Nothing
Maple Hayes Hall
Shakespeare in the Park Outdoor Production, Wednesday 19 June 2019
By Jono Oates
On Wednesday morning I went to Chadsmead Primary Academy to talk to their Year 1 to Year 6 pupils about David Garrick as his name is one of their four school houses. I explained that Garrick was one of the greatest actors of the 18th century and that he was the best, and most well-known, Shakespearean actor of his day.
So, it was very fitting that on Wednesday evening I made my way to the stunning surroundings of the woodland around Maple Hayes Hall, to see one of Shakespeare’s wittiest, and most popular, plays: Much Ado About Nothing, performed by the Shakespeare in the Park theatre group.
The plays are performed in the woods of the Italian Gardens that surround Maple Hayes Hall, a fabulous Georgian listed building, built in 1794 and now home to Maple Hayes School for Dyslexia.
The first Shakespeare in the Park (SITP) production was in 1986 when they performed The Taming of the Shrew. In 1988 the group performed Much Ado for the first time and it returned in 2004. The auditorium is in the open air, with guests sitting on straw bales that surround the stage. Guests can bring their own seats, blankets, picnic hampers, drinks etc and, although first night was warm and dry, the weather can be changeable so warm and waterproof clothing is also highly recommended.
I read Much Ado About Nothing when I was thirteen at school and I remember it quite clearly as it was funny, not as hard to follow as some of Shakespeare’s more complicated multi-level plot lines and had some classic comedy characters.
The plot of Much Ado is mainly about two sets of star crossed lovers, Benedick and Beatrice and Claudio and Hero. Benedick and Beatrice quarrel and bicker with each other and both deny any romantic interest in the other. However their friends, recognising the spark between them, trick them into declaring their true feelings using the old ‘my friend told me she fancied you’ routine. Hero, daughter of nobleman Leonato, and Claudio, a friend of Benedick, decide to marry and are about to declare their vows to each other when another, this time more sinister, trick played upon them by Don John, a bitter acquaintance of the family, splits them asunder. Don John tricks Claudio into believing that Hero has been unfaithful to him on the night before her wedding and Claudio is so furious that he jilts her at the altar. Hero’s distraught family pretend that she was so traumatised by the failed wedding that she has died. When two bungling policemen overhear two of Don John’s accomplices bragging about the trick to separate Claudio and Hero, they are arrested and Don John’s plot, and Hero’s innocence, is revealed. Hero, pretending to be a new potential love interest for her former lover Claudio, arranges to meet him disguised behind a mask and when she removes it to reveal that she is very much still alive they are reconciled. When Benedick and Beatrice finally declare their true feelings for each other, the two sets of lovers provide the perfect happy ending with a double-marriage celebration!
Shakespeare’s play is set in Sicily, the island underneath the ‘toe’ of Italy, but the SITP company have relocated this performance to Berkeley Square in London and reset the time period to just after the end of the Second World War. Soldiers are returning home from the war and so there are lots of WWII period costumes and accompanying mood music from the time.
The performance of Much Ado by the SITP is simply delightful and a joy from start to finish. The witty dialogue and word-play is superb, the action moves along at pace and there is never a dull moment. The programme notes tell us that Much Ado was probably written around 1599 and for a play to be written 420 years ago and still be relevant, amusing, entertaining and engaging today is quite amazing.
The cast are very experienced and their performances reflect both their experience and their enthusiasm for acting out one of Shakespeare’s finest comedies in this enchanting woodland location.
Robin Lewitt, a regular SITP performer, is excellent as Benedick, Beatrice’s erstwhile lover, with great comic timing and asides, a wholly believable portrayal of a strong man not wanting to declare his true emotional feelings and provides some athletic scaling of the stage set. Hannah Davies is sweet but strong as Beatrice, who stands up to Benedick and matches him blow by blow when he tries to taunt her. In a fancy-dress scene the maids are dressed as Suffragettes and this theme of strong women is reflected in the fact that Beatrice, Hero and Antonia, Leanato’s wife, are all prepared to stand up for themselves and are not just decoration. One of the most well-known lines in Much Ado comes from Beatrice when she declares:
“I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow, than a man swear he loves me.” …
showing that she is not just going to swoon at the first wedding proposal from any man.
Ellie Galvin plays the scorned Hero, with another fine balance of sweetness, vulnerability but also inner strength. SITP debutant Jack Pritchard played Claudio, a challenging role as he turns from good guy to villain and then back to good guy again as he realises the error of his ways. A strong opening performance especially at the altar jilting scene where raw emotion is definitely on show.
Very strong support is provided by a host of SITP regulars and seasoned Lichfeldian theatre performers including David Stonehouse as Don Pedro, Aaron Morris as the baddie Don John, Adrian Venables as Leanoto, Sarah Stanley as his wife Antonia, Stefan Dufaye in a number of roles, and also Fiona Willimott as the maid Ursula and who has the finest ‘scream’ in Lichfield theatre!
Elliot Beech, another SIPT debutant, is fantastic fun as the knockabout, bumbling, malapropism- fixated police constable Dogberry (whose name alone brings a smile to the face!). Dogberry is one of Shakespeare’s most accomplished, and remembered, comic creations and always features high up the laughter ladder at any Much Ado performance. I last saw Elliot as Francis Henshall in the Lichfield Players’ One Man Two Guvnors, a role made famous by James Corden, and he was very funny in that, which is a physically demanding, and line-heavy role. He is the perfect Dogberry, displaying cunning, ignorance, false-authority and incompetence in equal measure, as well as some very funny slapstick comedy. He also enjoyed a great partnership with Brian Todd as his second-in-command Verges. Entirely watchable in every scene, whether centre or side stage, he earned some well-deserved rounds of applause from the audience well before the final curtain.
The production was directed by Lucy Dufaye, who has appeared as an actor in previous SITP productions, but this was her first appearance as a director. I bumped in to her five minutes before curtain up and she was, understandably nervous, but she needn’t have been. A faultless production with everything running to plan, great performances from her cast and an audience who clearly enjoyed every minute. She oversaw a clever relocation of the setting and style which, despite the character names, made us believe that we were in 1940’s London rather than 1590’s Italy. The closing sequence is always an SITP ‘treat’ and the ensemble 1940s style dance number was great fun with the entire cast looking delighted, as well they might. As the music died away a huge firework display lit up the darkening evening sky and the woodland showed all the colours of the rainbow, a fantastic end to a wonderful show.
The lighting, designed by Stephen Rainsford, was as atmospheric as always, especially as the sky darkened and the stage lights came into their own and the sound, designed by Stefan Dufaye, was clear and consistent, even above the noise of the early evening bird calls! The costumes, provided by the Birmingham Costume Hire and Lichfield Costume Hire were authentic and colourful and the choreography was by Charlotte Middleton.
As I walked back to my car after the show the light blue sky, tinged with orange, was turning to inky black and I realised that my day had started with Lichfield’s own David Garrick, a man who performed and, at times, rewrote, some of Shakespeare’s most significant work and I had finished my day having watched one of Shakespeare’s finest comedic plays.
The SITP performance of Much Ado About Nothing was a gem of a production…I’m sure Mr Garrick himself would have approved…
Much Ado About Nothing by the Shakespeare in the Park theatre group is on in the grounds of Maple Hayes Hall from Wednesday 19 June to Saturday 22 June at 7.45pm, with a Saturday matinee at 2pm. Tickets are available from the Lichfield Garrick box office on Castle Dyke, ring 01543 412121 or book online at: