It’s early December and yet the festivities are in full swing at the Park Theatre in Islington. An interpretation of the Bard’s Much Ado About Nothing, staged during Christmas 1945 couldn’t appeal more to me. Being a lover of both the play, the era and the festive period I went in with exceedingly high hopes.
Entering what has to be the smallest professional theatre I have ever seen, I was automatically sold. The set, of course, had to be simple given the logistics of the room, but it just worked. A traditionally dressed Christmas tree and delicate table and chairs informed anyone who wasn’t yet aware that this was not going to be a truly literal or authentic playing of Much Ado. When the audience were seated around the edges of the stage- nobody could have been more than 10 feet from the actors- a maid entered in a simple black outfit and the (at most) 100 person audience fell immediately silent awaiting the action.
Opening with a simple tableau, they showed backstory of the war and added depth for the relationship history between Beatrice and Benedick. This decision allowed for a far more believable and real relationship that I have never seen in previous stagings of Much Ado. Dare I say it – not even the fantastic Royal Shakespeare Company production from a few years ago.
Obvious hat-tips to Beatrice and Benedick (Libby Evans and Garry Summers, respectively), who are always cast with the greatest care and had impeccable chemistry. However, the stand out of this interpretation for me has to be Margaret (Angela Ferns). The life and spirit afforded to the character in such a tiny cast left me, somewhat unusually, spellbound by her. And her fascination with whips. Not something normally seen in Shakespeare, but a welcome addition given the laughs the actress achieved with it.
With such a small production it would have been easy for it to have come across as being cheap or sparse. However, that is not the impression I left the Park Theatre with. Instead I found the evening intimate and private. Evoking more of the Blitz-style “We’re all in this together” spirit, which was probably more prevalent in 1945, than anything else. Fantastically festive and a delight to behold. As much as I love an authentic Shakespeare, some interpretations – this one in particular – can prove themselves to be just as great.