Shakespeare in the Garden – The Turk’s Head, Twickenham
Reviewed – 25th September 2020
“The cast is definitely not short of energy and enthusiasm, and, as an audience, that is infectious”
Open Bar have been putting on Shakespeare productions in pub gardens since 2015; their mission statement, clearly set out in the digital programme, is ‘to create fun, clear reinventions of the Bard’s best’ which both ‘Shakespeare aficionados and first timers’ can enjoy. Six actors take on the multiple roles, with all the fast and furious costume changes you’d expect. The text is sprinkled with contemporary references and direct address, and the actors steer the Shakespearian ship with barrels of ‘lets-all-have-a-great-time’ gusto. The cast is definitely not short of energy and enthusiasm, and, as an audience, that is infectious. The problem lies with the fact that frequently the actual play gets lost in the fun.
Given that the rambunctious approach is clearly Open Bar’s brand, The Tempest seems an odd choice. The late plays are all a good deal more cerebral in tone, and The Tempest is no exception, taking on such mighty themes as colonisation and the nature of power and forgiveness; it is also, in many ways, Shakespeare’s examination of his own art, and the power of theatrical magic to transform. Whilst a pub garden on a chilly Autumn night may not be the right place for a deeply political take on the play, there could have been a lot more made of the magic, and, highly skilful though it undoubtedly was, Ariel’s aerial athletics were no substitute for the astonishing conjuring tricks of the language itself. Nicky Diss’s direction relied heavily on Vicky Gaskin’s movement direction, and too often the text was lost in the physicality of the performance. At times, this meant a lack of clarity with regard to plot, and at others, lack of poetry. At no point in the production did ‘the enchanted isle’ genuinely seem a place of wonder.
That said, there were some terrific moments, and some fine performances too. Special mention here to Jessica Alade (Miranda/Antonia) who spoke the verse with subtle poetry and exceptional clarity, and to Adam Courting, who’s Prospero, although perhaps lacking in power, was a highly engaging and charismatic mischief-maker. The Tempest’s comedy duo – Stephano (Thomas Judd) and Trinculo (Nathaniel Curtis) – worked well together, though Trinculo’s mincing campery made somewhat uncomfortable viewing in 2020 and did seem a jarring directorial choice.
Seeing theatre at the moment is a headier and more complex pleasure than in pre-COVID times. The joy of being there at all is, of course, intensified, and it was and is heartening to see so many people swathed in blankets under a September moon to share the experience of live performance. That experience is bitter-sweet however. The Open Bar team worked social distancing and hand sanitising into their production with their trademark rollicking good humour, but there’s no denying that theatre loses an awful lot without touch. Similarly, although we, of course, all need escape and entertainment in these turbulent times, we ignore theatre’s power to help us understand ourselves, and our human predicament, at our peril.
Reviewed by Rebecca Crankshaw
Photography by Headshot Toby
Fuller’s Shakespeare in the Garden continues at various locations until 1st October. Click on image below for details.
“the cast are masterful at multi-roling and eking out the comic potential”
Lockdown appears to be easing in many walks of life, but it is unfortunate that the theatre world, in particular, is still struggling to get back on its feet. The government announcement allowing indoor events is very welcome although there is still a fair bit of ground to cover. In the meantime, open-air theatre is stealing the spotlight, and a very fine example of this is the Maltings Open Air Theatre Festival, set in the unique Roman Theatre of Verulamium just on the edge of St Albans. As part of the festival, Shakespeare’s “Henry V” is running in rep throughout August.
Whilst our theatres are nursing their wounds from the battle against the pandemic, outdoor theatre has another foe, too, in the English weather; and “Henry V” opened just as the heavens did. But mercifully the downpours showed some restraint for the crucial ninety minutes and rain didn’t stop play: the show must go on, and the true spirit of the cast thrives, matching the trumpet calls that herald Shakespeare’s historical text.
“Henry V” is an ambitious play. It is difficult to represent the great battles of Harfleur and, more importantly, of Agincourt. It relies heavily on the collective imagination of the audience, and here it is aided too by the individual imagination of director, Matthew Parker. Embracing the current restrictions, Parker presents the play as a rehearsal for a school production. The teachers and students have gathered together in the summer holidays to rework their production of “Henry V” that was presumably curtailed earlier in the school year. They have to alter the staging to make it socially distant and safe. Costumes can only be touched by the actor wearing them and no-one can share a prop – each cast member assigned different coloured tape to enforce this. The action is interrupted whenever actors get too close to each other. It is a clever way if incorporating the regulations into the performance itself.
The cast brilliantly capture the atmosphere of the classroom in recess where familiarity and authority have license to flirt with one another. The flipside, however, is that one is drawn to these characters more than to the Shakespearian characters they are portraying, and Shakespeare’s text plays second fiddle. The complexities of the subject, and the contrasting views on patriotism and warfare, do get swept aside by the occasional over-projection and caricature. Nevertheless, the cast are masterful at multi-roling and eking out the comic potential. Felipe Pacheco and James Keningale stand out, playing seven or so characters between them; and Rachel Fenwick shines as the French King’s daughter, Katherine, especially during the iconic scene in which she attempts to improve her English.
But all in all, it is an ensemble piece that is refreshingly pacey and fizzes with energy. The electricity that seems to crackle form the stage is not just the early signs of the impending thunderstorm. The setting is stunning: an excavated Roman amphitheatre that is nearly two thousand years old. For over a millennia it was buried, but it lives to see the light of day. A fitting backdrop for one of the first productions to emerge since lockdown. The spirit of theatre cannot be dampened – by an invisible enemy nor by the English weather, and this feisty production of Henry V is testament to that spirit.