Everything came joyfully together for the Shakespeare in the Park Festival at Church Road Winery on Saturday afternoon - the weather after a week of rain, the Elizabethan village with all the stalls and vendors, the happy crowd and, of course, the Much Ado about Nothing performance that ended the day.

This was an Elizabethan rom-com par excellence. Considered one of Shakespeare's best comedies, it is full of contrasts between the characters, there is hilarious humour and dark motives, court politics and the charming dottiness of the "watch".

Scene one begins with the cast onstage: as one, they turn their heads to look into the distance - from far left plods Alice the horse, carrying a messenger who dismounts inelegantly before racing to the stage holding a letter aloft. It reports the imminent arrival of the victors of war, Don Pedro and his soldierly comrades.

The soldiers arrive. They are drummed in through the crowd towards the home of Leonato, Governor of Messina, and we are introduced to the other key players of the story - Benedick, Beatrice's love-to-hate interest, and Claudio, the lover of Leonato's daughter Hero. The story has begun and we settle in.

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My absolute favourite performer amongst many fine performances was Daniel Betty's Benedick. In a multifaceted and coherent performance he is arrogant and full of opinions (which will be changed by love), and is hilariously self-deprecating and swaggering all at the same time.

Equally riveting onstage was Champa Maciel as Beatrice. She too plays a complicated character that challenges gender attitudes of the period by being non-compliant, decisive and self-determining.

Maciel holds our attention, she is vital and commanding onstage and, in spite of the caustic exchanges between them, Beatrice and Benedick are totally believable as a couple.

Claudio, played by Michael Rowlands, starts out the admired soldier and gentle lover of Hero, but he loses the plot when his erstwhile mates invent a story he believes about Hero behaving like a whore (this is so unjust that it shakes our confidence in the character).

He is vicious in his accusations and hurt while demonstrating the attraction he feels towards this gentle, blameless girl - it's not an easy task, yet this is a fine performance of conflicted emotions. I also felt very drawn to some of the minor roles - Hero's gentlewomen handmaidens, Amanda Jackson playing Ursula, and Lisa Jane Easter as Margaret. Easter also appears as one of the "watch" team, Verges - it's a gem.

My congratulations go to the Drama Workshop and the director Peter Cottrell for a very successful production. The music by Confetti Ensemble provided just the right sound throughout the production and they were present onstage with the actors. The generous spaces of the Church Road Winery provided a fitting outdoor stage and graced the dancing, which had been charmingly choreographed by Champa Marciel.

Connor McKinley, of Puketitiri, successfully crunches an apple while apple bobbing. Photo / Duncan Brown
Connor McKinley, of Puketitiri, successfully crunches an apple while apple bobbing. Photo / Duncan Brown

The Shakespeare in the Park festival demonstrates a huge commitment from everybody involved and the linkages that made it possible - from the Rotarians who provided the logistics of the event, the stall-holders and the many sponsors, the voluntary supporters who worked with the crowd, to the fire-eaters at the interval and the cast of 16 who acted their hearts out.

As one of the crowd, I found it a satisfying and holistic Shakespearean experience.

A second, more intimate production of Much Ado about Nothing will be staged on Saturday, April 2, at the Hawkes Bay Opera House Plaza, Hastings at 7.30pm. Tickets from Eventfinda.

* Much Ado About Nothing
* Shakespeare in the Park
* Church Road Winery, Taradale
* Saturday, March 19
* Reviewed by Kay Bazzard