Garden shows: much ado about nothing?

Annabel Banks 26 June 2009

May Week can mean many things: sleeping, dancing, champagne and strawberries, excitement and relaxation. There is a sense of having earned the right to drag ourselves from one debauched evening to another, evidenced by empty bookshelves and recycling bins full of notes.

For me, one of the greatest pleasures comes from afternoon recovery-periods spent in watching one of the many outdoor plays this week offers. Each day, the blooming green spaces of colleges host the efforts of the various drama groups that dot the Cambridge map.

There is something for everyone: Greek Tragedy in Peterhouses’s ‘Trojan Women’; Shakespearean comedies at Clare and Gonville and Caius; even the all too rare new writing got an airing in Emma’s ‘Fair Youth’, (which I had to strain to hear, but enjoyed for what it was).

Part of the fun is the unpredictable British weather: Trinity’s ‘Private Lives’ was almost washed out, but we wrapped our coats around our heads, sympathised with the scantily clad leading ladies, then promptly forgot about the rain as we were reabsorbed into the comedy. At Don Juan on Trial (Pembroke) they gave us orange juice as an apology for the lack of shade as the sun scorched actors and audience alike.

In these afternoons, we are as ceiling less as Shakespeare’s Globe, with minimal sets and effects. We are on grass, on blankets, on sinking plastic chairs; part of the tradition of outdoor performance that can be seen in the ruins on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, and, most of all, we are entertained.

This leads neatly to Clare’s ‘Much Ado about Nothing’, a delightful 1920s-set production of Shakespeare’s most accessible comedy. The Fellows’ Garden is well-suited to the eavesdropping and intrigue: with no scenery forcing a focal point, the flora is used to great effect; an incredulous Benedick peers through branches and leaves, while an equally enthralled Beatrice rustles her way through plant life, straining to hear her mischievous kinswoman, and playing it for solid laughs.

It was a pleasure to watch a cast who so completely inhabited their characters, particularly Holly Cracknell’s Beatrice. Her gaiety was charming, evinced in every skip, while her rage brought cords to her neck as her emphatic thumps on Benedick’s chest echoed across the garden. Toby Jones’s rear-grabbing Benedick was heartily humorous and, when roused, deadly serious, and the chemistry between Benedick and Beatrice was so strong one suspects they hate each other offstage.

Director Anna Hobbiss keeps the action so fluid I found it difficult to take a photo that wasn’t a blur, and it may have rained, but no one cared. Music, song, costume and casting all amount to a production that I am seriously considering seeing again—five stars for this show in particular, but also to all those involved in bravely staging Garden theatrics. Your efforts have been greatly appreciated.

Annabel Banks