As part of the annual RADA festival, BurntOut Theatre presents Much Ado About Nothing in the middle of Russell Square, a fitting backdrop to the Bard’s coquettish comedy about love, marriage and the thwarting of it all by the evil Don Jon (given immense presence by Sam Wright). Directed by RADA graduates Clemmie Reynolds and James Ball, the pace is there and all the fun the work has to offer is clearly carved out, from the well-known deceit to the conversion of sworn bachelor Benedick (Ant Cule).
The site-specific angle of BurntOut might mean the actors have done outdoors theatre before, but still too often their voices are lost in the clamour of the park, especially in the first act. It might not be a bad idea to invest in some audio equipment next time, because what is said deserves to be heard: I found it to be an altogether satisfying rendition of one of Shakespeare’s most often performed plays. Set in 1920s England, it has become even more farcical, with class difference expressed in heavy accents and outfits always bordering on the clownesque. A three-piece band accompanies scene changes and celebrations with the swing of the period.
A trapeze artist dangles in the tree under which the action takes place – perhaps a bit odd given that she becomes essentially part of the scenery, but at the same time it somehow works, and the sight does help to indicate the fictional domain. The actors, meanwhile, trot amongst the picnicking audience and open up the playing field to their heart’s content. It is especially Lydia Huhne as the cynical Beatrice who appears absolutely unfazed by the challenges of the open space: she is never too softly spoken, her performance is outstanding and, as the play itself prescribes, she doesn’t seem to take it all too seriously.
The difficulties of performing in a public space (apart from the volume mentioned earlier) became apparent immediately on arrival, when a gentleman in front of me questioned why he should pay for a ticket when bystanders could witness the whole thing for free. It is indeed strange to invent such a difference between sitting on the grass within or outside of some banners tied in a rectangle. In any case, site-specific is on the rise, and – weather permitting – the park is a good shot. BurntOut doesn’t do a flawless job, but the fun of theatre is highly visible and by the end the show had become the focal point for many of the non-paying park audience too.
Much Ado About Nothing played in Russell Square on 12 July. For more information, see the RADA Festival website.