The RJ Williamson Company
(Open Air Production)
Venue: Kirkstall Abbey cloisters, Leeds
24th August 2004
3 / 5
Reviewed by:
Alex Waddington
Just minutes before he was due on stage, Robert J Williamson stood at the entrance to Kirkstall Abbey cloisters in jeans and a casual shirt, passionately relaying to me his company's ambitions, achievements and current anguish.

The awful weather has walloped ticket sales and £50,000 must now be raised or this will be the last year the ancient Abbey echoes with the sounds of sonnets, songs and soliloquies.

And what a shame that would be, for the Leeds Shakespeare Festival - now in its tenth term - has provided thousands of reluctant theatregoers with an exciting and accessible introduction to William's work.

It seems that when Shakespeare's texts are snatched from beneath dusty proscenium arches, loaded with emphasis and expression and thrust into an historic outdoor arena, new audiences are willing to give them a go.

Much Ado About Nothing takes the audience on a roller coaster ride of laughter, tragedy, melodrama and farce. As is the norm for a Shakespeare romantic comedy, pernicious plotting and devious deeds knock love and friendship out of their stride.

Directors Williamson and Frank Jarvis have clearly worked with the actors to ensure each truly understands the meaning and significance of their lines. As a result the performers are highly animated and expressive, which sends waves of comprehension rippling through the rows.

The verbal sparring of eventual suitors Benedick (Robert J Williamson) and Beatrice (Penny Woodman) is a highlight of this charming, pruned and pacey production, which runs for around two and a half hours.

Woodman is wonderfully cutting and caustic, while Williamson directs himself to great effect. He handles his character's transition from flighty bachelor to doting lover with skill and subtlety, cleverly eking out every last drop of comedy from the part.

A notable mention must go to Matthew Roland-Roberts, who was playfully booed at the curtain call for his blank-eyed and sinister portrayal of Don John. In the relatively minor role of Antonio, Christopher Robert has a wonderful stage presence and shakes the Abbey to its foundations with one passionate tirade.

But it's the bumbling antics of local police officers Dogberry (Wayne Cater), Verges (David Patterson) and the Watch (Michael Gabe) that really brings the audience to life.

I've always thought the RJ Williamson Company has tendency to lay the farce on a little too liberally. As a result, its productions can sometimes descend into tiring silliness.

But on reflection Shakespeare probably included these lawmen for little other reason than to give the audience a good giggle, and the slapstick performances of Cater, Patterson and Gabe certainly elicit a mountain of mirth.

While the set is basically a raised platform and a few Roman columns and statues, the performance space is certainly more densely populated than in previous years.

The green hedges at the back of the stage are unobtrusive and aesthetically pleasing. They also serve to shield the actors from audience view as they make their way towards the stage, which give their entrances more impact.

But one must question the need for the hulking structure - representing the house of powerful governor Leonato - that lurks uncomfortably stage left.

Aside from providing shelter for soggy audience members at the interval, it remains puzzlingly peripheral, except for a fleeting moment when Borachio (a solid performance from Richard Morrison) shuffles under an archway and utters, "Stand thee close, then, under this pent-house, for it drizzles rain."

As it was bucketing it down with rain when the line was delivered, the comment prompted a roar of delight from the audience.

The costumes adorning the male and female characters are in sharp contrast; resplendent First World War military uniforms and classy tailoring versus flimsy and simple white dresses. This serves to emphasise the way the men command the women in this play, although Beatrice - who is dressed in markedly more elegant attire - certainly gives her male counterparts a good run for their money.

While it's unclear whether the RJ Williamson Company will return to Kirkstall Abbey in the future, one thing is for certain; this is the last year its Leeds-born founder will perform with the group.

The highly talented actor-manager will be concentrating on producing and directing in the future. A good reason, therefore, to dig out your warm clothes, pack an umbrella, cock a snoot at the weather and catch him and this enjoyable production while you can.

Copyright J A Waddington 2004. For syndication rights, please email.

Stuff to buy:


Much Ado About Nothing (Arden Shakespeare)

Much Ado About Nothing (New Cambridge Shakespeare)

Much Ado About Nothing (Oxford School Shakespeare

Much Ado About Nothing (BBC Radio Shakespeare S.) [AUDIOBOOK]

York Notes on William Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing"

York Notes Advanced on "Much Ado About Nothing"

Much Ado About Nothing (The New Penguin Shakespeare

Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing" and "As You Like It" (Casebook Series)

Much Ado About Nothing: Teacher's File (Livewire Shakespeare Series)

Forthcoming Performances

See the RJ Williamson Company
website for details