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Much Ado about Nothing

by on 19 April 2018

Giddy Things

Much Ado about Nothing

by William Shakespeare

RTK, Granville & Parham and Antic Face co-production
at The Rose Theatre, Kingston until 6th May

Review by Mark Aspen

“Man is a giddy thing”, says Benedick at the conclusion of Much Ado about Nothing, Shakespeare’s incisive comedy about the “merry wars” between men and women, and the Rose Theatre’s special production to celebrate its Tenth Anniversary is a wonderfully giddy thing.

Much Ado About Nothing at the Rose Theatre. Photo by Mark Douet _50A6886

Although the production is somewhat tongue in cheek, the knock-about humour is well balanced with an appreciation of the play’s less palatable messages. Certainly the first night audience, with its many seasoned “theatre people”, received it with much deserved enthusiastic applause. Another balance, which director Simon Dormandy succeeds in pulling off, is that between the main plot, which revolves around the pitfalls of an arranged marriage between Claudio and Hero, and the contrasting sub-plot, the “merry war” between the reluctant couple, Beatrice and Benedick. The sub-plot frequently in production swamps the main story, and indeed this seems to have always been the case, as the big acting names of day have taken these roles: Kemble and Mrs Jordan in the eighteenth century, Irving and Ellen Terry in the nineteenth and Gielgud and Peggy Ashcroft in the twentieth. Berlioz even called his operatic version Béatrice et Bénédict. In the Rose’s production, the sub-plot sits comfortably within the main plot as part of story and not in spite of it.

However, what makes this production exciting and enjoyable to watch is its sheer energy. It is a modern dress production, with Shakespeare’s Sicilian setting notched up for the modern audience by placing it under the hegemony of the Mafia. Messina becomes the Hotel Messina, full of super-luxurious five-star pampering for the wealthy, and complete, as the Hotel’s own advertising soundtrack tells us, with a spa where treatments included “organic sand” (sic) and massages with donkey’s milk!

Designer Naomi Dawson’s ambitious set is a versatile but realistic view of the marble terraces and interiors that comprise the swish purlieus of the Hotel Messina, plate glass partitions, exotic plants and all the whistles and flutes for a € 1,000 per night stay. The bedrooms are seen on the first floor level, the terrace extends the Rose’s thrust across the pit, and in fact the pit cushions are now part of the set, in handsome white “leather”. This set looks superb (although I suspect that sightlines from the very side-most seats have a very limited view). Paul Pyant’s lighting design has a very busy time, especially with all those discos.


Much Ado About Nothing at the Rose Theatre. Photo by Mark Douet _80A9461

It is into this hedonistic setting that Don Pedro and his clan, protected by bodyguards with automatic rifles, loudly burst to visit the local Mafia of Leonato. Don Pedro has made an uneasy peace with his half-brother Don John, and the atmosphere is edgy and threatening. Nevertheless, Leonato welcomes his rival clansmen with a guarded equanimity. Don Pedro’s young kinsman Claudio immediately has eyes for Leonato’s teenage daughter Hero, a liaison that is not unwelcome, as a potential marriage might strengthen the alliances between the lodges. This is where the conceit of the late twentieth century Sicilian Mafiosi works impeccably. The parallels with the mores of Shakespeare’s imagined Sicily of four hundred years earlier work impeccably: the patriarchal society, rigidly imposed; the concept of honour, violently imposed and the relationships between the sexes, relentlessly imposed. In passing, one cannot help also draw comparisons with the new mores of twenty-first century Britain, where in spite of a seeming openness about sexual matters, the relationships between the sexes are more fragile than ever, and even a misplaced word can have dire consequences.

All of the characters in Dormandy’s well-paced production are boldly drawn, each one depicted large. This characterisation approaches perilously close to caricature, particularly in Peter Bray’s chavvy Don John, Shakespeare’s arch-villain of the piece, with a swaggering, menacing sub-Mick Jagger approach, clad in slit jeans, nursing a black eye and sporting swept-back dreadlocks. If fact the coiffure of the main protagonists does help define them. The silver mane of David Rintoul’s Leonato spoke of the suave and sophisticated patriarch, whereas the shaved head of Peter Guinness’ Don Pedro is the hallmark of a ruthless and determined gangster. However, these three leaders are not caricatured, they are each strong men in their own way: Don Pedro, hunched, ready for action, but observing and biding his words; Leonato, troubled, but harsh and controlling. Both think they are masters of their own fate, but this is the very thing that leads to their mastery being undermined.

Much Ado About Nothing at the Rose Theatre. Photo by Mark Douet _50A8318

For the younger of the pairs of lovers, they certainly are not masters of their own fate. It may be love at first sight, but a marriage is engineered by their leaders for them, and a chaste one, where they are not allowed even to meet alone before the precipitous wedding day. Calam Lynch plays a divergent Claudio, a mixture of shy uncertainty and hot-headed youthful bravado. Kate Lamb’s portrayal of Hero is charming and totally convincing. There is a poignant moment when, rejected at her own wedding, she holds out her hand to be reconciled with her father, but is rejected, and she falls back distraught. The subtle acting between the two, with the fingers not quite meeting, smacked of a Michelangelo painting.

The second pair of lovers in these “merry wars” have a completely different trajectory, the misogynist Benedick and the misandrist Beatrice have a robust repulsion to each other that in truth is a thin shell covering their mistrust of their own true feelings. The shell is broken in the joshing of Benedick’s male companions and equal sophistry from Beatrice’s female companions.

Much Ado About Nothing at the Rose Theatre. Photo by Mark Douet _31B0034

Much of the source of the broad humour in Shakespeare’s work comes from the ribaldry, trickery and double-entendre of this relationship. The very title of Much Ado about Nothing is a triple pun, including some very naughty hints (but will leave my readers to research the Tudor colloquialisms themselves). This production pumps this up with farce and slapstick to bring out all the comic genius of the interactions between Beatrice and Benedick. Their friends conversations, “unknowingly” overheard, allow for inventive visual gags. Benedick hides “unseen” under a massage table, and Beatrice under a flower-arranging bench, with hilarious misadventures with a paperback book and spray-bottle respectively. The ready wit of John Hopkins adds great strength to his portrayal of Benedick. His confident and broad attack on the part makes him a great favourite with the audience. Equally Mel Giedroyc’s acerbic and self-assured Beatrice has real bite (but could have a little more softness when they are reconciled). The dynamism of the duet in their mutual repulsion made their eventual reconciliation even more believable: great theatre.

What makes the acting of this Much Ado about Nothing even more great theatre is that for all the characters the emotions rang true. This extends in equal measure to the other characters, most of whom not only doubled supporting parts but also act as musicians. Hence, Victoria Hamnett (Margaret), Caolan McCarthy (Conrad and the Friar), Nicholas Prasad (Borachio), Katherine Toy (Ursula) and Silas Wyatt-Barke play drums, saxophone, two violins, guitar and mandolin between them, making the most of composer and sound designer, Jon Nicholls’ specially composed music even more special. “Sigh no more ladies”, a song which inverts the general theme of the play that it is a woman who cannot be trusted, is especially memorable.

At the crux of the play, when Hero is slandered at the marriage altar, it is the rustics who save the day. Stewart Wright’s tai-chi practicing Dogberry adds another layer of humour to his malapropisms, which are not only Shakespeare’s words, but a few modern additions. Thus, Don Pedro becomes variously Don Pedallo, Don Peugeot, Don Peso and Don Perignon.

Master Constable Dogberry’s foil, Verges, is played by Sam Dastor, who makes much physical humour from his dotage, but Dastor really shines as Antonio, Leonato’s brother, especially in the final act, when Antonio confronts Claudio as one of the “boys that lie and cog and flout, deprave and slander”, with a vehement passion. The passion is inflamed in this production by Lynch’s Claudio taking off his shirt like a lairy football lout and threatening Antonio with a knife. This is a mistake, as it loses all sympathy that one might have felt for Claudio, and it is hard enough to see why in any case Hero would still want to marry a man who had suffered her such vile calumnies.

In contrast, in the same scene, we see Benedick resigning his post with mock irony “My lord, for your many courtesies I thank you: I must discontinue your company” and his challenge to Claudio, “For my Lord Lackbeard there, he and I shall meet”. Hopkins delivery rings very true, for here is not the Benedick whom Beatrice introduces at the beginning of the play as “a very dull fool” but a man who has changed, and now expounds serious messages.

Benedick’s change should mirror that of the tenor of Much Ado about Nothing, the play itself, which moves from broad comedy about the interaction of the sexes to judge serious issues around deep relationships. Man, that “giddy thing”, can come to rest.

Mark Aspen
April 2018

Photography by Mark Douet



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