If there’s one thing that you can rely on in Manchester, it’s the rain. Anybody staging open-air theatre in this city are certainly brave souls who deserve the utmost respect. The Great Open Air Theatre company are the latest to do so, performing an exciting summer festival of Shakespeare in the amphitheatre outside the Great Northern Warehouse. It’s wonderful to see this criminally underused outdoor performance space being fully utilised to bring live theatre to the public. With all performances available at a ‘pay what you want’ basis, Shakespeare has rarely been more accessible.
However, during what was a particularly wet weekend, even by Manc standards, rain forced GOAT Mcr‘s performances indoors. Thankfully, the team at 53two allowed them to use their new theatre premises to stage Much Ado About Nothing.
Firstly, I want to commend all those involved for doing a fantastic job of transferring the production indoors at such late notice. Adapting this open-air production to a smaller venue with a smaller performance space couldn’t have been an easy task, but it is one that worked really well. Effective direction ensures that actors still enter and exit the stage from all sides of the audience; sometimes sitting amongst them and at other times climbing across the audience. It brilliantly captures the chaotic playfulness and freedom that open-air theatre allows.
Although, it is worth noting that the close proximity of the actors may make some audience members feel uneasy, coming out of Covid restrictions. I want to stress that the production did nothing wrong here, it’s just that everybody is dealing with returning to normality differently, so some audience members may not appreciate an actor sitting next to them. It’s something that may feel more comfortable in an outdoor performance space than an indoor one.
The play itself is framed as a piece that is being performed by a group of actors; a play within a play, reminiscent of Bottom’s troupe of actors in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Initially, this causes confusion, particularly to those who are unfamiliar with Much Ado About Nothing. For the first ten minutes of the play, it is unclear exactly who these characters are. Shakespeare is already difficult enough to understand, so I honestly struggled to follow what was going on. At first, I thought that Dogberry was a character in Shakespeare’s play, rather than one of the actors putting on the play. Although, if I was already familiar with Much Ado About Nothing, I would’ve found it easier to understand.
Saying that, once the roles have been assigned and the actors begin performing the play, they come into their own. The comedy and pace really picks up, and it becomes a thoroughly entertaining and amusing romp, due to the company only performing the ‘key players and main events’. The GOAT Mcr actors display impressive versatility, as they each play multiple characters with apparent ease, with a simple beard, a pair of glasses or fake moustache differentiating characters for remarkable comic effect.
Each scene is explained beforehand by Gemma Whiteley‘s charismatic Friar Francis, who allays any confusion of the abridgement and builds a great rapport with the audience. Assigning herself as the director of the play within a play, her competitive banter with Sean Henry‘s Dogberry is a delight to watch, because he wants to take charge, but is constantly shot down.
Henry’s Dogberry has an inflated sense of self-importance, declaring that each scene he appears in is his ‘finest hour’. It is with a certain amount of irony that the finest section of Much Ado About Nothing is credited to Dogberry, thanks to Sean Henry hysterically playing multiple roles in an interrogation scene.
As well as providing musical accompaniment to the play with a version of ‘hey nonny no’ on an acoustic guitar, Abey Bradbury depicts Benedick. In this gender-blind production, she is accompanied by Kyle Fisher, who softly inflects his voice to play Beatrice. They work well as Shakespeare’s famous couple, but it is in their performances as actors ‘Oatcake’ and ‘Seacole’ that they truly thrive. Their facial mannerisms are priceless, as they play the ‘fool’ roles that are typical in Shakespeare’s plays.
Harry Mace also deserves credit for their dexterity as an actor, giving an emotionally sensitive performance as Hero, after the disastrous wedding scene, whilst also making me laugh with their wonderfully exaggerated, ridiculous portrayal of Borachio, complete with a fez and a false nose.
Overall, this production proved to be a hugely enjoyable introduction to Much Ado About Nothing which left me wanting to watch the entire, unabridged Shakespeare play. It also made me certain that I will watch more plays performed at the open-air Summer Shakespeare Festival. Hopefully the weather will be nicer next time.
The Summer Shakespeare Festival runs until 15th August 2021 at the Great Northern Amphitheatre. The full line-up can be found on GOAT Mcr’s website.