MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING. Northcott Theatre Company, Exeter.
A darker mood creeps over the love affairs of Much Ado as the play's action proceeds.
Just when Beatrice and Benedick stop bickering and admit their mutual affections, Don John and his henchmen trick Claudio into believing his bride-to-be, Hero, is unfaithful.
It will happen just as night spreads across the dry moat of Rougemont Gardens where Exeter's Northcott Theatre decamps for open-air Shakespeare next week.
Director Ben Crocker revels in the space, which especially suits scenes such as the one in which the wedding goes horribly wrong when Claudio surprises the company by rejecting Hero, and the one at Hero's tomb.
The wedding leads to the crucial scene with Beatrice and Benedick. They declare their love with complete honesty, then within two seconds she is telling Benedick to kill Claudio.
Early in rehearsal Crocker wouldn't commit himself on Beatrice's thoughts in this scene: whether or not she goes through their declarations of love intending all along to demand her newly-acknowledged lover kill his best friend in revenge for making Hero (apparently) die of a broken heart, or whether she behaves more spontaneously.
It seems unlikely she's merely manipulative. "It's absolutely essential there's a real physical attraction between Beatrice and Benedick. It's very easy to get seduced by their wit but the play's also about people dealing with things like love."
So why do they fight? Beatrice feels she has been spurned by Benedick at some stage. Benedick is enormously attracted in turn, for all his mocking her - "There's a question how much he's been lying to himself. Certainly he does a speedy about-turn when he overhears his friends saying Beatrice loves him. "
Quick pacing helps interweave the play's serious and comic scenes. The most comic characters are Dogberry and his Watchmen. Clumsy and inexpert with language Dogberry may be, but he stumbles on the truth when deceptions have led his more eloquent betters near to disaster.
Then there are the villains, led by Don John. As a bastard "he's always been socially and financially inferior to his brother Don Pedro. He's never been seen as being as good or deserving as his brother" says Ben Crocker. So he's ripe for a plot that will hurt just about everyone.
Rougemont Gardens, Exeter, July 7-August 1. Tickets: 01392 493493