Much Ado About Nothing
Even on a cold, grey evening, Lucy Bailey’s lively and funny production of Shakespeare’s tale of Beatrice and Benedick, two self-declared singles tricked into confessing their love for each other, brings a summery brightness to the South Bank. Bailey and her designer Joanna Parker have moved the action north from Sicily to the garden of a grand country house in the Veneto as the fascists and German forces are being driven out of Italy in 1945, which permits things to seem relatively modern though still with some old fashioned attitudes to gender roles and behaviour.
Creepers climb over the Jacobean façade, grassy mounds stretch out beyond the stage and it is a time for alfresco celebration. This is not now the home of Beatrice’s uncle Governor Leonato but of Contessa Leonata, and his brother Antonio is now Antonia.
The gender switch works wonderfully with Katy Stephens and Joanne Howarth giving stunning performances full of feminine fun and excitement.
When a group of aristocratic partisans turn up, led by Milanese Prince Don Pedro (Ferdy Roberts), some seem to be old friends of the house, including Benedick who seems to have a back story with Beatrice: “I know you of old,” she tells him. His companions make a bet they’ll get him married and their hosts are complicit in planting the idea in both Beatrice and Benedick’s heads that the other is batty about them. Meanwhile, young Count Claudio (Patrick Osborne) has eyes only for Leonata’s daughter Hero (Nadi Kemp-Sayfi); it looks like a love match.
Lucy Phelps’s Beatrice and Ralph Davis’s Benedick make great sparring partners. While her tongue may lash him with wit, her laughing eyes scorn him, while we can see that behind the front he puts on he’s really quite loveable. The scenes where the others ensure that they overhear talk of the other’s affection are way over the top but delightful, with Benedick narrowly missing the snip of Antonia’s shears, pinching a hat or hiding behind a moving wheelbarrow and Beatrice getting wrapped up in a volleyball net or suddenly soaked by a garden sprinkler.
The production blends verbal wit with panto so that the comic scenes with the Watch seem part of the natural flow. They are led by George Fouracre’s bicycling Constable Dogberry, who has a special way with pauses.
As in panto, there is a self-identified villain: Don John (Olivier Huband), illegitimate brother of the Milanese Prince, but there’s no hissing, he’s not overplayed and even henchman Borachio, who does his dirty work, seems more misguided than evil. On press night, he was effectively played by Philip Cumbus, standing-in script in hand (hardly needed but allowing a lively ad lib) as Ciaran O Brian had a broken ankle .
Leonata’s household has no fewer than five female accordionists, and this is a production that sparkles with music and songs and a masked dance. It seems so light-hearted but has its dark side. When the action of Claudio, tricked by Don John, drives Beatrice to demand that Benedick kill him, it got a laugh—but a moment later, the whole house was hushed and things were immensely serious.
This Much Ado skilfully moves between laughter and near tragedy. It can easily embrace action involving audience from Beatrice picking out men to Dogberry having to be helped off the stage or Borachio popping his hat on a groundling’s head to distract his pursuers. It has a clear narrative and a company who all have their moments but form an effective ensemble. It is great entertainment and you go home happy.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton