Much Ado About Nothing
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme
Many people associate Northern Broadsides with Barrie Rutter, the founder and former artistic director of the company who for 26 years did so much to take the mystique out of Shakespeare.
But he’s not the only man who has had deep, enduring connections to Northern Broadsides: associate director Conrad Nelson has been involved with all the company’s productions since 2004 and was seen as Rutter’s natural successor.
Now Nelson is saying farewell with his 16th production as director for Northern Broadsides, Much Ado About Nothing. As with all his shows, his aim is to make the text accessible to all; he achieves that with a freshness and skill for which he’ll be remembered for a long time.
Nelson sets Much Ado during World War II. Don Pedro, Benedick and Claudio, dressed in RAF uniforms, meet up after a skirmish in which they have defeated Don Pedro’s rebellious brother Don John. Planes ominously circle overhead; tragedy may not be far away.
Purists may not be too happy with some of the touches Nelson uses to bring out the comedy of Much Ado, such as the modern asides uttered by Richard J Fletcher as the sexton when he has to fetch and carry for Benedick. But it’s refreshing to see a ladder being used as an arbour, allowing Benedick to get an aerial view of his friends talking of Beatrice's supposed secret love for him. He almost falls off, such is his bewilderment.
Robin Simpson and Isobel Middleton are cast as the warring lovers. Simpson is a delight as the officer who has met his comeuppance in Beatrice, initially deciding to have nothing to do with her because he realises she is wittier than he is. He later becomes determined to woo his new love yet doesn’t display the sentimentality expected of a younger man.
A scene in which he pulls an audience member from her seat and plonks her on his knee to ensure his presence remains a secret is one of the funniest moments of the evening.
Middleton gives an endearing depiction, filling her character with feistiness and pugnacity. When Benedick asks her what she wants him to do after Claudio mistakenly jilts Hero at the altar, her shouted “kill Claudio” response emphasises that there is a chance the story may end in tragedy.
Simeon Truby grows into the part of Leonato, superbly delivering his “Why, doth not every earthly thing cry shame upon her?” speech when his daughter Hero is supposed to have been unfaithful to Claudio.
Matt Rixon’s Don Pedro is commendably unapologetic after swallowing the story about Hero; Sarah Kameela Impey is suitably distraught as the wronged bride and Linford Johnson is a wide-eyed, mischievous Claudio.
Several of the cast show their musical talents, with the production peppered with numbers including “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” and a cappella interludes too.
Perhaps members of the night watch aren’t as comedic as they could be as they expose the villainy instigated by Don John before harmony is restored.
But there is indeed much ado about Conrad Nelson’s swansong for Northern Broadsides which is certainly no comedy of errors.