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Much Ado About Nothing

by on 29 April 2023

Getting in a Flap

Much Ado about Nothing

by William Shakespeare

The Questors at the Judi Dench Playhouse, Ealing until 6th May

Review by Brent Muirhouse

As soon as I’d read that Anne Neville’s direction of Much Ado About Nothing was to be set in 1923 and would feature Gatsby-esque flappers, jazz hands and art deco decadence of the Charleston dance craze, the likes of which Shakespeare himself was at least 400 years too early to embrace (alas, poor playwright), I was entertained by the mere premise.

Much like being submerged into the glitz and glamour of one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous literary son’s parties, it wasn’t long into the production that I – and the audience and large – felt invited to enjoy the revelry, with anybody leftover surely swayed by the multiple eight-string ukulele bops conjured up by the recurring Balthasar (the self-confessed mini-instrument obsessed Julian Smith).  Yes, this is Shakespeare, but with the surprising yet welcome balance of the Bard’s words with barre chords. 

The set design of Alex Marker (who retained some of the comparable style of the era featured in the Questors’ recent production of Murder on the Nile) underpinned this party atmosphere, with the clever use of trellis windows and plants on stage acting as snooping spots for nosy characters to hear secrets and generate the gossip that fuels what becomes about as close to an attention-grabbing soap opera storyline as Shakespeare could possibly be.

The location is retained as Messina, a city in north-eastern Sicily, beginning in Leonato’s villa (Robert Staines).  Therein much of the cast arrive, including the two pairs central to the play, entangled in a dance of love’s complications, the first of whom being Beatrice (Kate Langston) – niece of Leonato – and army officer Benedick (Richard Graylin), former lovers who spent much of the play engaged in a verbal fencing match, their hearts unwittingly caught in the crossfire.  Both Langston and Graylin lean into the comic elements of the role superbly, carrying themselves with a great energy and confidence making them inherently watchable.

Meanwhile, the second pair consists of Leonato’s young daughter Hero (Fionna Gough) betrothed to a lovestruck Claudio (Adam Keenan), who’s path to the altar faces a bumpy ride when the nefarious Don John (Pip Nixon) engages in wicked games, spreading lies which threaten to alter the course of destiny.

A large ensemble cast all play a part in a performance fit for the bejewelled bedazzlement associated with the roaring twenties, balanced with the focused precision of delivering a revered Shakespearean comedy.  Merit must also go to the inept duo of Constable of the Watch, Dogberry (Anthony Curran), and second-in-command Verges (Gareth Bevan), with slapstick moments akin to thespian Chuckle Brothers, and who look like they are less in control than their dependable watchdog (who goes by the name of Benji).  All of this accumulates to a whirlwind of mistaken identities, merry pranks, and genuinely funny misunderstandings, which means the slimmed down two-hour duration of the play flies by.

Much Ado About Nothing is as uncommon, as it is a Shakespearean title which describes almost the entire narrative arc.  However, this production’s exploration of the irrationality of love’s, the fragility of ego, and the unrivalled power of words and gossip, make this a narrative well worth watching as it uproariously unfurls from start to finish.

This marks the second Bard-based outing of the week for this reviewer after a production of Henry V, and with it a newfound appreciation and enjoyment of the difference in tone and emotion at two very opposite ends of the playwright’s spectrum.  This version of Much Ado About Nothing definitely had something about it and, being brought into the perceived harmonic and carefree era of the Charleston, embodies it as a merry dance until the curtain call, with my foot still tapping along to the tune as left the theatre into comparably subdued evening, lit only by the streetlights of suburbia.

Brent Muirhouse, April 2023

Photography courtesy of Questors

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