Celebrating 20 years in the business Barrie Rutter’s Northern Broadsides show no signs of slowing with a spritely performance of one of Shakespeare’s trickiest plays. Practically plotless the story follows the King of Navarre and his public school chums (think a younger, likeable David Cameron and co.) as they swear off fun for three years so they can devote themselves to the serious task of study; a vow which is seriously tested when the Princess of France and her three feisty ladies-in-waiting pitch up outside the court.
One of Shakespeare’s earliest plays all the elements you would expect from his comedies are here – from mistaken identity to lost letters and plays-within-plays – but what really matters is the luxuriant wordplay. Revelling in his mastery of English Shakespeare throws in everything from riddles and couplets to tortuous puns and ribald innuendo. In fact there’s so much vocabulary flying around that most of must soar over contemporary audience’s heads.
Thankfully Rutter knows that if even if nuance is lost the audience can still surf on the play’s natural rhythms. His talented cast therefore ratchet up the ridiculousness and power through the performance even when your comprehension is hazy. Special praise should go Andrew Vincent for his ‘Allo ‘Allo-esque take on the Spanish braggart Don Armado and Matt Connor as the King’s trusted sidekick Berowne. Rutter himself puts in a spirited performance as the loquacious schoolmaster Holofernes that suggests if he ever tires of treading the boards he would find a comfortable home on the cobbles of Coronation Street.
As seems de rigueur with historical comedies the action has been updated to a frothy 1920s milieu of bright young things, Oxford bags and Marcel Waves, but the styling is kept subtly in the background. Likewise Jessica Worrall’s set is fresh, simple and unobtrusive. Composer Conrad Nelson meanwhile deserves notice for the uplifting punctuation of the musical interludes.
A slow build this is play that demands engagement but stick with it and you will be rewarded with an engaging and, thanks to the play’s surprising denouement, thoughtful evening.