As I suggested in last week’s review, many of the best things about Tolethorpe Hall simply do not change. The headquarters of the Stamford Shakespeare Company is situated in a graceful manor house surrounded by idyllic countryside, and one of the first things that greets you is the smell of the clipped box hedges.
Theatrically too you can always count on a large company, beautiful sets, sumptuous costumes, and magical lighting. Productions are typically traditional and workmanlike. But there are often surprises, sometimes played for laughs, but always with the aim of making Shakespeare accessible and enjoyable.
Having said that, as the sunshine spilled downstage during the wedding scene in Much Ado About Nothing, I began to wonder if Tolethorpe was pushing its boundaries and reaching new levels of excellence and innovation. The scene was the harrowing one in which the bridegroom Claudio turns down his sweetheart Hero at the altar after she’s been falsely accused of cheating on him.
As the thwarted lovers, Adam Cavender and Harriet Spence were effective enough. But they were joined by Mick Franklin as Hero’s father Leonato, Peter Sulston as the priest and, best of all, Tom Westall as Don Pedro. The five actors worked together to produce some of the most compelling acting I’ve seen at Tolethorpe. Full of passion and humanity, and delivered with crystal clear diction.
Much of this play is devoted to another pair of lovers, Beatrice and Benedick. At first they insist on their lack of interest in each other, but their declaration of mutual love eventually becomes inevitable. As the argumentative couple, Amanda Plant and Richard Coville were well-matched and somehow all the more sympathetic because they were no longer in the first flush of youth.
Another example of innovation was that this production of a play set in 17th century Sicily had been transported to the England of 1918. Complete with a country house parterre, men wearing khaki and then white tie, and a group of ten women forming the night watch. Led by a formidable female Dogberry played by Angela Harris, they were eventually transformed into a peripatetic Chinese laundry bearing a grinning dragon!
Whether these anachronisms were really worthwhile is something that can be debated endlessly. What’s not in doubt is that the capacity audience relished them all.
Meanwhile one of the best visual gags involved Benedick getting tangled up in a line of washing assembled by the two maids, Joanna Scott and Stephanie Collins. A temptress who reappeared at half-time as an all too persuasive ice-cream seller.
Review: Joe Conway