Seriously, can someone tell me where the time is going?! It’s been a year since I performed in the Department of Theatre, Film and Television at the University of York’s annual summer production Demons. Now the Department has just offered up its latest summer production. Adopting a flavour slightly different to class struggles and revolution, the production this year is James Shirley’s classic comedy Hyde Park, directed by Mike Cordner.
In Hyde Park, it’s festival time in the eponymous green landscape tucked away in London. While Cordner has relocated the comedy to our modern time, the story still remains the same. A man named Fairfield (Chris Casbon) decides his love interest Carol (Hannah Eggleton) is too harsh in her attitude to men, and the two engage in verbal battles of wit throughout the play. Meanwhile, Trier (Josh Welch) decides to test the faith of his love interest Julietta (Saffia Sage) by having her spend time with another man. Rounding out the third point in the triangle of Shirley’s narrative is the story of Lacy and Mrs Bonavent (Robbie Nestor and Hattie Patten-Chatfield). When the two get married, a figure from Mrs Bonavent’s past comes back right on cue to fulfil a promise, much to Lacy’s dismay.
Gradually, all of these separate narratives come together amidst the chaos of horse-racing, betting and wedding celebrations. The cast do an excellent job in terms of tackling Shirley’s sparkling yet almost tongue-tripping dialogue, eloquently executing the well-plotted scenes. Their characterisations are both well-considered and richly detailed – Hannah Eggleton and Chris Casbon particularly shine in their roles. They masterfully and entertainingly present the audience with two characters charging at each other head on in the name of love, making their stichomythic exchanges some of the funniest moments within the play.
There is a welcome quiet energy pulsing beneath the relationships of the characters and their actions on stage. This is enhanced and showcased perfectly by Roberto del Pino’s set and lighting design, which is clean, effective and pleasing on the eye. Harking back to a time of performance that placed no emphasis on or had no need for furniture, Cordner’s intention here is to allow the audience to focus on the interactions between the characters while “acknowledging the clarity of Shirley’s original concept”.
Cordner does indeed achieve this, and the audience is able to focus on the clean, well-plotted bits of action and the subsequent developments in the relationships of the characters. Yet, in spite of the strong characterisations and well-considered visual design aspects, something doesn’t feel quite right here. I think the missing thing is atmosphere, which for me is the fulcrum of any theatrical production, especially modernisations of classic texts.
It mainly falls to the actors to generate this, and while they flawlessly execute Shirley’s text, I don’t obtain much of a sense of where we are in the narrative. They don’t change or react much to the environment they’re in, and I feel this greatly hinders the generation of atmosphere. There are times, however, when it’s certainly present – at Lacy and Mrs Bonavent’s wedding, for example. In this scene, there’s some live music, and the whole company responds perfectly to it and helps to support the cheerful, subtle mocking of Bonavent (Ben Kawalec), Mrs Bonavent’s actual husband. There’s an enjoyable and engaging energy here, and I would have loved to see more of it throughout the production.
Aside from this one niggle, this production of Hyde Park is excellent. It’s a fitting testament to the talent amongst everyone involved, and as a result it’s a highly memorable piece of theatre.
Hyde Park played at the Scenic Stage Theatre at the University of York. For more information and tickets to upcoming productions, visit the University of York website. Photo: Harry Elletson Photography