One of Edmonton’s many ‘best kept secrets’ is the Free Will Shakespeare Festival. This is the twenty-second year that the ‘Free Willies’ have been using the Heritage Ampitheatre at Hawrelak Park to bring us their outstanding open-air productions of the plays of the Bard. Marci and I have been going down to the park to watch them since long before we moved to Edmonton in 2000; I think the mid-nineties might have been the first time we took in one of their plays while we were on a holiday trip. Over the years they’ve been getting better and better; some of the more memorable productions included Julius Caesar in 1998, Richard III in 2001, and the Merchant of Venice in 2004.
The man who gave one of the best ever performances as Richard III in 2001, John Ulyatt, is back this year as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. Plying opposite him as Beatrice is Belinda Cornish, who is fairly new to the Free Will Shakespeare Festival, but who is obviously destined to be one of its stars. In order to be believable, these two need to be played with just the right combination of biting wit and sarcasm on the one hand, and obvious attraction and affection on the other, because they start the play at each other’s throats and end it in each other’s arms (well – more or less!). They are the archetypical ‘anti-romantic’ couple, whose love conversation later in the play continues to include playful little intimate put-downs and whose stubbornness at the end almost – but not quite – derails their own wedding! Ulyatt and Cornish have these two down to a tee; definitely the best portrayal of Benedick and Beatrice I’ve ever seen (and miles above the well known Kenneth Branagh/Emma Thompson movie portrayal).
Artistic director Marianne Copithorne has done a wonderful job bringing Shakespeare’s script to the stage, with clever production details and the odd non-Shakespearean line thrown in for good measure (“These are the dogberry days of summer”, says Dogberry as he lounges by the centrepiece of the stage). Her only questionable decision, in my view, was eliminating Leonato’s brother Antonio entirely from the script and having Friar Francis take over his few spoken parts. This leads to one confusing moment later in the play, where Leonato invites Claudio to marry ‘his brother’s daughter’ and everyone who is unfamiliar with the story thinks he is talking about Beatrice, as her (presumably dead) father is the only brother of Leonato who has been mentioned in the play to this point.
But this is a minor mistake in an otherwise brilliant production. If you live within easy distance of Edmonton, I strongly recommend that you get down to the park to see Much Ado before the season ends on July 25th. Individual tickets are $22.50 and a season pass (for both Much Adoand Macbeth) is $35. The schedule is available online here.