Friday 13th July 2018 in Roundhay Park, Leeds.
Heartbreak Productions frame their take on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing as a local village production raising funds for the British Red Cross in 1919. The eager locals bustle and bicker as they prepare for the performance to start, chatting to audience members and playing old village fête games before swiftly introducing and launching into their production of Shakespeare’s tale of love and woe. It’s a strong cast and they double up roles both within the Shakespeare production and when playing the villagers putting on the show. The play follows the intertwining love stories of Hero and Claudio and Benedick and Beatrice – the former basking in an open infatuation while the latter must be tricked into recognising and accepting their feelings for one another. There are of course crossed wires and trickeries to entertain here but while Much Ado About Nothing is a famed Shakespearean comedy, Heartbreak Productions here portray the story as much more of a drama than a comedy. Laughs are to be had, but the driving force and most impressive moments are by far and away the fiery, dramatically charged exchanges which are particularly impressive during the second act.
Libby Esler’s costumes leave us in no doubt of the era in which we sit as the audience for this performance from the locals while Kate Wragg’s designs likewise evoke a bygone era through a rough and ready stage and charming retro activities dotted around the audience area. Director Paul Chesterton makes great use of the theatre in the round approach , with our cast playing out the story in formations more natural than those found in more traditional staging set-ups. This particular layout also vitally allows all audience members an equal chance of excellent vantage points – I don’t think there’s a bad spot to be found in this performance space within Roundhay Park.Faye Lord is sugar sweet as Hero; she plays the role as the classical pure female, all gentility and doe-eyed innocence. Lord also gets to change things up slightly as the bossy villager leading her band of haphazard players and plays both roles with great conviction. As Hero’s lover led to believe cruel untruths, George Naylor makes an excellent Claudio. He’s all confidence and self-entitlement towards Hero and there’s a lovely recurring glimpse of art imitating life as Lord and Naylor’s civilian roles flirt and fall just as their Shakespearean characters do. Naylor also takes a star turn as troublemaker Margaret and excels as the bumbling villager deeply in love with our bossy villager. Our second pairing of Benedick and Beatrice is a far cry from the proud, proclamatory relationship of Claudio and Hero; Shaun Miller’s Benedick has an iron will, a towering pride and a permanent rage towards Beatrice, whom he clearly sees as a dismissive and irritating female. Bryony Tebbutt’s Beatrice lives up to that very reputation established by an irked Benedick. She is indeed dismissive, sardonic and very hard to impress and so naturally, it takes a well meaning trick to turn things around for the warring duo.
Tebbutt also gives a great performance as the pompous yet lexically challenged Dogberry- another of Shakespeare’s most self-serving and self-satisfied men to ever make it onto paper. Tebbutt is in fact the overall star here and is excellent throughout, giving a performance usually found on an RSC stage. Her handling of Shakespeare’s language demonstrates both flair and ease, while she plays each role with equal force and credibility through an impressive stage presence. Ashley Aston also impresses as a large array of roles, all of whom she manages to portray as distinct. She impresses most as Leonata, a walking, talking display of the egotism and preoccupations with what entitlements of men and fathers. Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing carries fresh relevance these days, and Heartbreak Productions really go to town in scenes depicting the rage, the hurt and the danger caused by a patriarchal society demanding so much of women. The company do also celebrate the love stories and do well to include some lovely moments of comedy, but as mentioned earlier, for me, this is a drama with well placed moments of light relief. Shakespeare’s plays land in three categories only of course: Comedy, Tragedy and History, but it would appear that Heartbreak Productions are carving out a fourth here and it works very nicely. I’m not convinced that a drama is necessarily the intention, especially as our bossy villager appears to tell us some cheesy jokes at one stage to lighten the mood, and I’m not quite sure why Shakespeare’s comedy within the play itself isn’t enough to lighten the mood without such modern interjections, but I thoroughly enjoyed this production as a well crafted and very well performed drama all the same. Let me put it this way: despite rain and a chill in the air, this was a great evening and that’s surely the marker of a charming outdoor production.
If you’re a fan of Shakespeare in any capacity or just have a penchant for nostalgic outdoor productions in the height of summer, get yourself a ticket to see Heartbreak Productions’ current shows in Roundhay Park. As well as Much Ado About Nothing, they are touring The Railway Children, Pride and Prejudice and The Midnight Gang too – you can find more information and tickets here.