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Much Ado About Nothing

by on 9 February 2023

Nothing Island

Much Ado About Nothing

by William Shakespeare, adapted by Debris Stevenson

National Youth Theatre Rep Company at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 10th February

Review by Andrew Lawston

The concept of Much Ado About Nothing being updated to the world of reality TV may well spark scepticism at first glance, or an even more adverse reaction.  But after just a few seconds’ thought, Shakespeare’s comic tale of young people manipulated into coupling up – and breaking up – for the amusement of others, becomes a natural fit for the domain of dating programmes like Love Island.  And rather than acting as mere set dressing, the reality TV theme pervades Debris Stevenson’s new adaptation (or “remix” according to the programme) of the play for the National Youth Theatre, providing a timely and caustic commentary on disturbing trends in reality TV and social media.

It must be stressed first that the text is almost entirely Shakespeare’s, and the necessary alterations to fit the reality TV theme are far fewer than one might reasonably expect.  The stars of this year’s season of “Nothing Island” are building to the finale, and Jez Davess-Humphrey’s likeable Claudio is smitten with Thuliswa Magwaza’s lively Hero.  They both bring huge energy and personality to their roles, and the audience is invested in their relationship from the outset.  Jack D’Arcy’s laidback trustafarian Don Pedro agrees to court Hero on Claudio’s behalf.

Behind the scenes of the reality show, however, Jessica Enemokwu’s Leonato and Tomás Azócar-Nevin’s Conrade – wonderfully conniving producers in this version, who spend much of the show watching the action on playback monitors, and even feeding lines to characters through earpieces – attempt to disrupt the match during the show’s “Recoupling Skank” as part of a bid to rig the show’s outcome, manipulating Don John and Borachio (Jasmine Ricketts and Dalumuzi Moyo, both hugely entertaining characters, who are more thoughtless than ill-intentioned here) into helping them.

As these misunderstandings gather pace, Daniel Cawley’s good-natured Benedick and Isolde Fenton’s feisty Beatrice fall out and are called upon to settle their differences through a rap battle.  Their rivalry is distinctly good-humoured throughout, and Don Pedro’s decision to attempt to pair them up makes a good deal of sense, especially within the context of a dating show.

Throughout the production, Hannah Zoé Ankrah plays the constantly excited and very plausible host of “Nothing Island”, but also plays the Friar, when weddings enter the equation.  The Friar’s complicity with the producers makes her decision to step in and support the disgraced Hero all the more powerful.

Beyond the trappings of this contemporary setting, however, the plays’ big moments are present and correct, and extremely well-performed, from the broad physical comedy of the scenes where Beatrice and Benedick are manipulated into falling in love, to the sudden chaos of the ruined wedding, and the subsequent pathos of Beatrice’s “that I were a man” speech. 

Director Josie Daxter keeps up a brief pace which enables the production to cram a vast proportion of Shakespeare’s text into a tight ninety minute running time, with scene changes facilitated by Zoë Hurwitz’s revolving set.  In an ingenious masterstroke, even the back of the set is used to represent the “backstage area” of the reality show.

It’s backstage where Conrade conspires with Borachio and Don John.  It’s also the area where Eleanor Booth’s Doctor Dogberry provides wonderfully lacklustre psychological support to the reality show’s contestants (“This above all, to thine own self be true” is one of several lines that appears to have migrated from elsewhere in Shakespeare’s canon).  Aided by Kira Golightly’s weary Verges, Dogberry’s decision to charge two runners with security is one of the few moments where the adaptation’s theme feels somewhat stretched, but Olivia Ng and Jerome Scott gamely thwart Don John’s plot.

Each production element that may first appear to be something of a gimmick, is shown to have a relevant function.  Before the play begins, the screens that hang over the stage display a looped montage of the characters, complete with their names, ages and occupations.  With a large ensemble cast, many of whom do not receive much in the way of establishing dialogue, this is a highly effective way of introducing the characters to the audience, particularly those who may not already be familiar with the play.

During the performance, the screens frequently flash up social media commentary from the viewers of “Nothing Island”, and it is telling how quickly the messages become unpleasant and judgemental.  The dark side of social media is revealed towards the end.  In a small deviation from the text, Don Pedro tells the fugitive Don John that “the viewers will punish you”.

Similarly, the lack of support given to reality TV contestants is joked about as Dogberry fails to be much help to a weeping Ursula (Chloe Cooper), but the mood grows more sombre as the producers swap lines about past failings and Don John is abandoned to the social media mob, a victim of the producers’ machinations.  Most telling in this respect is Hero’s wedding, as she lies on the ground, distraught, and the camera circle ever closer to capture her reactions.

This ambitious production showcases a large and impressive cast, and succeeds as a satisfying interpretation of Much Ado About Nothing, a joyful evening’s entertainment, and as an unflinching look at the more unpleasant aspects of reality television and social media.

Andrew Lawston, February 2023

Photography by Helen Murray

From → Drama, Duke of York's, NYT

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