It is a brave company that mounts an open-air production in the unpredictable British summer. Even when it doesn’t rain – and it didn’t at the first night of Mayhem’s Romeo and Juliet at Cannizaro Park, Wimbledon – the two main enemies to contend with are wind and acoustics. Both caused problems for this young and energetic company despite their skills and the attractive setting of the Italian Garden. The audience area was sensibly divided into places for those with seats, and lawns for others on rugs. The audience were encouraged to bring their own refreshments and many an M&S bag was being unwrapped; and even the most serious parts of the play unfolded to the sound of the occasional cork popping, as well as other sound effects. A family near me munched their way through an entire bunch of celery and several bags of crisps; I will never complain about sweetie bag rustling again.
Under the experienced direction of Matt Bentley, a name familiar to Sardines due to his work at SEDOS and GEOIDS, this was an intelligent and coherent reading of the text. Those unfamiliar with the play will need to have listened carefully, especially in the final stages, with no set to indicate the setting of the denouement in the tomb, and it was unfortunate that the low platform used for that tomb meant that much of this scene was not visible to all but those seated at the front.
In other ways the setting was suitably Italian, with balustraded sections to serve as balconies and a very wide playing area requiring entrances to be both rapid and timely, which they were. Costumes were mostly modern and unchanging – this pair of young lovers slept in their day clothes – and the second half was lit by floodlights which had the effect of giving rather more of the suggestion of sultry Verona than the chilly London night had provided.
The central performances were confident and driven, with Jack Armstrong as a headstrong and committed Romeo against Kat Novkovic as a feisty Juliet. With a slightly more mature actor in the role than is sometimes the case, it might have been best to cut the lines about Juliet approaching her 14th birthday, and her costume did not help her portrayal of a young and love-sick girl.
In a large cast there were no real weak links and several performances that showed evidence of intelligent investigation on the part of the cast. For once, in the amateur theatre world, the problem was not casting the younger parts as the correct age but the older ones, although having the warring parents played by younger performers worked well for the most part.
Alice Bendall followed this trend too, this nurse being more the age of an au pair, but she was enjoyable in the part and always audible. Josh Gordon had a nice take on Mercutio, although I expected a Scots accent to go with the kilt, but the performance of the evening was that of Acushla-Tara Kupe, a newcomer to Mayhem, as Benvolio. This was a full-blooded account of the role by an actor who drew the eye whenever she was on stage.
Unfortunately the wind and the acoustics played their part too, with audibility in the second half suffering as a result of the increased blusteriness except when cast members were standing on the central platform. Disappointingly, the cast often delivered lines to the two far corners of the stage, where the vegetation absorbed their words; there is no wall behind the stage to reflect sound so this is perhaps an occasion where more playing out to the audience would have been advisable. The half of the audience seated SL missed most of Romeo’s dialogue after the interval since he seemed to have his back to us for most of the time: when he did speak near us or behind us we realised what we had been missing, as had happened earlier when he have a good account of the “What light through yonder window” speech. Magically, though, the wind ceased completely for the scene in the tomb, only to pick up again, quite appropriately, when Juliet found that Romeo was dead.
Producer Jon Wade must have had many practical problems to solve, and should be congratulated for doing so. The audience were met and guided to the venue and then pathways were lit as we left for the lengthy walk through the park – although perhaps the many cheerful stewards could be asked to point their bright torches down at the path and steps rather than towards the faces of the departing audience. And make sure you turn right as you leave the garden or you will walk straight into the lily pond… No such hazards at Mayhem’s next production which will, quite appropriately, be West Side Story in Kingston in October.