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Cambridge Shakespeare Festival 2023 review: Much Ado About Nothing

A cast of brilliant comic talents brought Much Ado About Nothing to life in the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival’s production at St John’s College gardens last night.

These summer evenings in the beautiful open air settings lend themselves to Shakespeare’s comedies - the atmosphere is playful, audiences are stretched out on picnic blankets drinking wine and everyone is in the mood for something silly.

And last night’s performance did not disappoint - with everything from slapstick humour ( and some literal face slapping with a prayer book from Sister Francis), to witty banter, break out songs - Vanilla Ice, anyone? - and ridiculous costumes. Even a smattering of light rain didn’t dampen the audience’s spirits, although one actor did jump up from his seat after sitting in a large puddle.

The play is an enemies to lovers story of confirmed spinster Beatrice and eternal bachelor Benedick who are tricked into believing each is in love with the other. Meanwhile Beatrice’s cousin Hero is all set to marry Count Claudio until he is deceived by an evil plot and denounces her as unchaste on their wedding day, abandoning her at the altar.

There’s always one audience member who does the performative “I understand Shakespeare” laugh at every joke, and he was sitting behind me. But he didn’t need to try so hard - this show is effortlessly funny, the cast all have wonderful comic talent and the gags are embellished with witty asides that update and underline the humour for anyone not familiar with the story.

The audience at Much Ado About Nothing, part of Cambridge Shakespeare Festival.
The audience at Much Ado About Nothing, part of Cambridge Shakespeare Festival.

Jokes that aren’t always that funny on the page are brought to life with dramatic pauses, pratfalls and hilarious stage antics. Benedick, played by Alexander Costas Christoph, is amusing as a swaggering singleton who despairs of his friends boring on about romance. That is until he starts to believe Beatrice has fallen in love with him – and his Mr Smooth moves had the audience in stitches as they became more frantic. Several ladies in the audience were singled out for his attention and if you sit on the front row, be prepared to play along.

Meanwhile Meg MacMillan was brilliant as the snappy Beatrice and it’s nice that in this play the heroine doesn’t have to be taken down a peg or two before she gets her happy ever after.

The scenes where first Benedick and then Beatrice are hiding in increasingly ridiculous places to overhear conversations about the other are some of the funniest moments of the evening, requiring Benedick to cram himself under a bench and Beatrice dragging an unsuspecting audience member to hide with her behind a sheet and dress up in - not easily explained - costumes.

I loved Timothy Weston’s turn as Don John, who is less a dastardly villain and more like an emo teenager, stalking about in eyeliner and a fluffy black cape that keeps tripping him up. His tantrums become more and more ridiculous until he is literally whacking a tree with what looks like a rubber spatula.

The biggest laugh of the night came from the Watch scene with a literal ‘surprise turn’ from Alexander Costas Christophi, which I won’t spoil here.

The delight of the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival is you can go along with no knowledge of the play and easily follow what is going on. Children will have no trouble understanding the story and I would recommend this for a family evening out.

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