Much Ado about Nothing

William Shakespeare
Sheffield Theatres and Ramps on the Moon
Crucible Theatre

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Caroline Parker (Dogberry) and Lee Farrell Credit: Johan Persson
The Company of Much Ado about Nothing Credit: Johan Persson
Guy Rhys (Benedick) and Daneke Etchells (Beatrice) Credit: Johan Persson

This exciting, generous and innovatory production represents an approach to a familiar text which is less concerned with the aesthetics of theatre than with "normalising the presence of deaf, disabled and neurodiverse people both on and off stage".

The Crucible is part of a collaboration of theatres, led by Ramps on the Moon, which take it in turn to produce an annual large-scale touring show which communicates on stage and off through the creative use of integrated British Sign Language, audio description and captioning.

This is the first time a play by Shakespeare has been included in the repertoire, which provides a wide range of characters for disabled and non-disabled actors and reaches out to an audience familiar with sign language. Director Robert Hastie has also used the opportunity to compensate for gender inequality so the villain Don John becomes Donna Joanna and Dogberry, leader of the Watch, is now a female role.

The action begins with a relaxed, informal sequence when all the actors introduce themselves and draw the audience’s attention to the colours and style of the costumes they are wearing, very helpful in later scenes when characters are masked or in disguise. We are assured that we will follow the storyline.

A programme note describes the play as "Shakespeare’s Take on the Rom Com". At the heart of the plot are the antagonistic relationship between Beatrice and Benedick, who each insist they will never marry, and the near tragic end to the relationship between Hero and Claudio, who are subject to Donna Joanna’s villainous interventions.

Comedy is supplied by the members of the Watch, notably in interplay between Dogberry and Verges in exchanges which anticipate similar malapropisms in later plays. Joanna’s incompetent henchmen, Conrade and Borachio, become comic figures once their villainy has been revealed.

An interesting feature of the play is the number of overheard conversations or distant observations that drive the plot. When Claudio’s aristocratic military general Don Pedro offers to woo Hero on his behalf, Claudio is convinced that the Don has betrayed him and is heartbroken. Beatrice and Benedick are encouraged to listen in on conversations which suggest that each secretly loves the other and are persuaded to fall in love. More seriously, when Borachio makes love to waiting woman Margaret disguised as Hero, Claudio is persuaded to observe the encounter, believes Hero is unfaithful and casts her off.

Robert Hastie’s production sits comfortably on the large Crucible stage and is very effective in full ensemble scenes like the early Masqued Ball when the choreography by Joanna Goodman facilitates moments of intimate conversation in the course of the dance. Later scenes, like that set in a massage parlour, provide opportunities for entertaining comic business, while a floor circle of flowering boughs simply represents the setting for the wedding and adds to its catastrophic outcome.

There are many strong performances in this large cast. Guy Rhys and Daneka Etchells are convincing antagonists as the warring central couple. Claire Wetherall as a non-speaking Hero uses expressive movement as well as sign language to communicate the horror of her rejection, and Benjamin Wilson gives a powerfully voiced performance as Borachio while moving with extraordinary confidence on the stage he can’t see. It is fascinating to see the variety of ways in which sign language, non-verbal expressive movement and the use of voice are combined, giving a strong sense of how mutually supportive the whole cast is.

An important production not to be missed.

Reviewer: Velda Harris