Much Ado About Nothing (The Barden Party)

Larnach Castle, 145 Camp Road, Dunedin, Dunedin

24/03/2023 - 24/03/2023

Dunedin Fringe Festival 2023

Production Details

Director: Laura Irish
Musical director: Jake Robinson

The Barden Party

The Barden Party returns with another smash hit summer show

The summer theatre phenomenon that sold out venues across the country and brought gardens alive with the magic of Shakespeare is back with a brand new show at three different venues for the 2023 Dunedin Fringe!

The Barden Party is Shakespeare like you’ve never seen it before (their name comes from Shakespeare’s nickname ‘The Bard’ + Garden Party). Formed to bring joyful, music-filled theatre to audiences in their own homes when COVID-19 shut down public performance venues. They’ve quickly established themselves as a must-see event, after completing an award-winning 50-show season in New Zealand, a blockbuster US tour and winning The Dunedin Fringe Excellence Award of 2022.

Now it’s back with a ‘rockabilly retelling’ of Much Ado About Nothing – a tale of love, deception and misunderstanding at Larnach Castle, Olveston House and The Opera House Gardens in Waititi.

Unlike any other Shakespeare performance you may have seen in the past, The Barden Party offers a truly authentic vintage theatre experience with a modern twist- operating as a travelling troupe just as was done hundreds of years ago. They carry all of their props and set with them, and are able to adapt their performance to suit a wide variety of spaces. They arrive at backyards, gardens, and public venues, and quickly transform them into a world of dukes, soldiers and lovers with mischief and laughter aplenty.

Directed by Laura Irish, this family-friendly jukebox musical extravaganza makes Shakespeare’s language accessible for audiences of all ages and experience levels. With lively musical outbursts featuring music by artists such as Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Outkast! (and more!) and laugh-out-loud moments woven throughout the story, this lighthearted comedy is the perfect chance for the uninitiated to dip their toes into the world of Shakespeare.

Actors arrive at the venue an hour before the show to set up a portable set and their instruments. The show is approximately 2 hours including a 10 minute break.

Visit The Barden Party’s website to find out more about their magical show and see images from our tours. Or watch the sizzle reel about the project with some testimonials.

Tickets to the shows can be found here:

Performances, 2023:

Larnach Castle, Dunedin – 24 March, 6pm

Olveston House, Dunedin – 25 March, 1pm

The Opera House Garden, Waitati – 26 March, 4pm

Cast: Sam McIlroy, Julia Guthrey, Lucia Evans, Caleb James, Mackenzie Gardner, Wiremu Tuhiwai

Theatre , Outdoor ,

2 hours

Rockabilly retelling of Much Ado

Review by Terry MacTavish 28th Mar 2023

The great triumph of the Barden Party is that it gives ownership to the rowdy audience sprawled on the grass, casually picnicking and cheerfully interacting with the cast, who mix and mingle outrageously with them, arguing their case, even grabbing likely types to fill in as characters. It is ebullient, raucous, joyous. Shakespeare is the People’s Poet once more! 

I am watching first in the splendid grounds of Larnach Castle, later the pretty garden of Olveston, and in neither venue does the set need to be more than a bench with a bright Mexican rug, and a plastic cactus on which to hang changes of costume. The Wild West, then? Yes, the musicians are already partying noisily with guitar and tequilas. Another reason for the picnickers to relax, clearly nothing arty or pretentious going on here. Yee-hah! 

Amazingly, this rockabilly retelling of Much Ado About Nothing is cleverly edited to be performed by no more than six extremely busy actor/musicians, who blast straight into a gleeful rendering of Love Shack, setting a jolly tone from the kick-off. The country and western theme is a really good choice for this play, and Elvis, Bruce Springsteen, Beyonce, Billy Joel and their buddies break up the dialogue with exuberant elan, but there are a few too many musical interludes, and with the play running at nearly half an hour over the advertised two hours, I think they could well be pruned.

Shakespeare’s plot is pretty simple – on his way home from war, Don Pedro the Prince visits Governor Leonato, accompanied by his jealous half-brother John, and friends Claudio (who quickly falls for Leonato’s daughter Hero), and Benedick (a confirmed bachelor who is nevertheless fascinated by Hero’s cousin Beatrice). Their friends try to bring a happy end to the “merry war” between Ben and Bea by pranking each into thinking the other in love, while purely out of spite, John the Bastard sets up a darker plot to make Hero appear a tart.

Although it is often a good ploy to cast against type, subverting audience expectation, especially with a well-known play, I find it hard to accept the delightfully silly and exuberant Caleb James as a stuffy, uptight Claudio who rejects a non-virgin bride, or indeed the serious, unsmiling Sam McIlroy as a wise-cracking Benedick likely to appeal to merry Beatrice, and though both actors make a good effort to convince, I cannot help but wish to see the roles reversed. Still, their well-choreographed horseplay is entertaining, and their blokey verbal sparring fun, especially Claudio taunting “Eggs-Benedick”! (You can probably imagine some of the more disreputable puns.)

An unexpected casting choice that works better for me is Wiremu Tuhiwai playing Don Pedro the Prince as no remote figure of authority, but a ruler who because of his position is not able to be himself. Adding an eye-patch to double as the Prince’s evil half-brother, John the Bastard, Tuhiwai is uproariously funny, playing the true panto villain to the delight of the audience, who join him in evil laughter, while the musicians add tambourine rattlesnake hisses.

The girls, Lucia Evans and Mackenzie Gardner, are lively and charming and, like all the actors, work to keep the pace from flagging, exchanging surprisingly bawdy witticisms with a nonchalant air. Thankfully Hero, the sweetly helpless victim, is a little more spunky than usual (though regrettably less so than Shakespeare’s daughter Susannah in Upstart Crow’s parody of Much Ado)! Prototype feminist Beatrice, Gardner in dashing blue denim, brings a sparkle to one of the most famous (and influential) couplings in all literature.

But the standout is Julia Guthrey, assertive as Governor Leonata (gender-switched to be mother of Hero, aunt to Beatrice), as well as playing any number of bit-parts, including hilariously the iconic role of thick but lucky Dogberry, leader of the Neighbourhood Watch, and originator of the malapropism. Whenever the plot is slipping away from the cast, and hence the audience, it is Guthrey who gets us back on track, driving the action with her polished, blessedly clear vocal delivery, and gift for engaging our attention and conveying the vital information. 

The odd muddle with lines, though, somehow suits the rough and ready style of the play, and the air of cheerful good humour is infectious. The actors make little of the drawbacks of open-air performance, whether it is the increasing chill at Larnach or the traffic noise at Olveston, and the audience takes its cue from their hardiness. It is a pleasure to be able to witness the animated response – an old friend tells me she has come because she loved Barden’s Midsummer Night’s Dream last year “and this is even better!”

Much Ado does not really fit the bill for Fringe, being far too long in a Festival of mostly one hour shows, and staged in some out-of-the-way places, but it is an inspiring and worthy venture that will surely go on from strength to strength. I love the Barden’s spontaneity and the way they have taken theatre back to its roots as a jovial travelling troupe. Bravo Barden Party, on turning the covid lockdown to such advantage, creating work for performers and fans for Shakespeare!


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