The Regent's Park season kicks off with Shakespeare's witty battle-of-the-sexes comedy and Timothy Sheader's fast-paced take on the story provides plenty of laughs even if there are a few patchy moments.
We meet one of these right from the start. One of the challenges facing the director is to explain why it is that Don John's unlikely tale of Hero's infidelity is believed. By starting with John manacled for his unspecified crime, the court is immediately alerted to the fact that he is, indeed, a plan dealing villain – scarcely much of a character reference when he tries to spin his yarn.
Nor does Sean Campion's Benedick raise the spirits: this is a man renowned for his rapier-like wit but Campion is too pat with his repartee. Maybe it's the Irish accent, but his patter-like delivery is more like a night club comic than the sardonic joker who delights his regiment. Once he's been deceived by Pedro and the others into loving Beatrice, his demeanor changes, it's almost as if his newly perfumed and closely-shaven self takes on a new, gentler side. The courtship is adroitly handled, culminating in one of the longest kisses one's likely to see on a Shakespearean stage.
What rescues the production is Samantha Spiro's rollicking, roistering Beatrice. Here's a woman determined not to be outshone or outdone by any man – at one stage, smoking Leonato's pipe as if to prove her independence of thought. It’s a beautifully judged performance, her natural ebullience punctuated by glimpses of wistfulness when she recalls her previous dalliance with Benedick.
There are some other strong performances: Nigel Cooke’s Leonato is less the old dodderer than usual, one senses that here’s someone who would really take on Claudio as he threatens and Anthony O'Donnell’s diminutive Dogberry wrests plenty of humour as he exploits his lack of height.
Philip Whitcomb’s set, with its strategically placed citrus trees is an excellent backdrop to the action, the trees doubling as props for the two eavesdropping scenes as well as underlining Claudio’s disdain when he implores Leonato “to take back this rotten orange” when he rejects Hero.
This is a robustly funny, fast-paced production; there are plenty of laughs to be had (although Leonato's inadvertent declaration that Claudio was to marry his “daughter's brother” got the biggest laugh of the night) and if it’s not perfect, Spiro’s performance is certainly worth catching.
- Maxwell Cooter