Monday, 15 October 2018

Fantastic Falstaff lights up summer Shakespeare

OPEN air theatre is always a bit of a gamble. Added to which, taking a 16-year-old

OPEN air theatre is always a bit of a gamble. Added to which, taking a 16-year-old who has just finished her GCSEs — and has had quite enough of Shakespeare, thank you — and it could have been an absolutely disastrous night out.

It most definitely wasn’t, as we were blessed with a balmy summer’s evening and a very personal atmosphere to the production of a play that is quite dense. Even the rain held off until the moment we left along a torchlit path.

If you have never visited the garden centre at Stubbings, I would recommend it as a place to be explored, with a bustling coffee shop and a wonderful collection of topiary, including an elephant.

However, I personally had never seen the gardens beyond the wall of the nursery and to walk through the arched gate was to feel like Alice in Wonderland as we were dwarfed by the 200-year-old giant cedars, and were met by knights on horseback in full armour and a man-at-arms carrying flags, which caught the breeze.

It was the perfect setting for an evening picnic, sitting out on the manicured lawn as laughter echoed over the fields beyond. When the bell rang to tell us to take our seats we were quite relaxed, and even the 16-year-old began to think the play might be interesting.

She wasn’t entirely let down (though without the brief history lesson in the car she admitted she would have been a little confused).

From the opening lines Falstaff was played brilliantly by Graham Weeks, being believable and funny, and his delivery and wide range of facial expressions certainly had us giggling.

Prince Hal, played by William Branston, was not quite so — and the director John Timewell admitted that the play had been shortened by 700 lines. Thus Hal’s conversion from gadfly to prince was not as convincing as it could have been.

There was a very malevolent Earl of Worcester (James Couper-Johnston) and some wonderful accents from Paul Seddon as Owen Glendower and Paul Freeman as the Earl of Douglas.

But Hotspur came over as foppish rather than hot-headed, almost spitting out his words, perhaps in an effort again to speed up the play. The point of reconciliation between the prince and the king is key — but was almost brushed over in the race to war. Perhaps this was a nod to the current political situation, but for some of the audience, including a few Americans who were over early for Henley Royal, it could have been missed as a crucial turning point.

It was at this juncture that there was a little bit of audience participation, with some rather amusing foot soldiers dragged from their seats. A smattering of comedy before a sharp turn to war and death.

Overall, the intimate nature of the presentation made us want to investigate the play further and even got the Shakespeare-weary teenager discussing the nuances of the writing and the history of the Protestant and Catholic, English and Scottish political situation, at the time it was written.

The location is stunning and I would encourage anyone to take the opportunity to enjoy an evening at Stubbings if they can — but take a blanket.

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