Much Ado About Nothing
Sheffield Theatres and Ramps On The Moon
Theatre Royal Stratford East
Much Ado is a popular play this year with productions by the National Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe, the RSC (which also got televised) and elsewhere. This lively production was the eighth to be reviewed by BTG this year when it opened in Sheffield. One version was trimmed down to 90 minutes with only six actors, another was Shakespeare in modern translation, the RSC had a black cast in a fantasy Africa, the National set it in an Art Deco seaside hotel, the Globe made Shakespeare’s watch cycling constabulary.
For this Ramps on the Moon production, Robert Hastie, Artistic Director of Sheffield Theatres, and designer Peter McKintosh have set it outside the summer chalet of Italian grandee Leonato (Gerard McDermott), inside which a party seem to be assembling. It is a prologue that goes on far too long before his guests notice the audience watching them and come out to introduce themselves.
Describing the setting and the costumes and personalities begins the audio-description for blind members of the audience while signing in BSL and surtitles serve those who are D/deaf in a production understandable to an inclusive audience. It is a production in which the casting is also inclusive with neurodiverse, wheelchair, deaf and blind performers or, as Benjamin Wilson, playing Borachio, describes himself waving his white stick and a beer can: “blind drunk”. Shakespeare’s plays tend to be heavily male, so, as in many other productions now, a number of male characters are made female: Leonato’s brother becomes his wife Antonia (Karina Jones), the Prince’s malevolent brother Donna Joanna (Fatima Niemogha) and Dogberry too is now a woman (Caroline Parker).
By the way, Dogberry and sidekick Verges (Lee Farrell), the clowns of the piece, are not just in charge of security as per Shakespeare but now run a massage parlour and a wedding and party planning business and their scenes have been revised. It makes them freshly funny.
The central story is that of Benedick and Beatrice, a couple of committed singletons who are tricked into admitting they love each other: Guy Rhys captures the spirit of a man whom she calls “the Prince’s jester” and Daneka Etchells is a Beatrice to fit the Prince’s comment of being “born in a merry hour.” You can see the affection behind their caustic verbal sparring.
For Benedick’s young military mate Claudio (Taku Mutero) and Leonato and Antonia’s daughter Hero (Claire Wetherall), it is love at first glimpse, marriage to quickly follow, though scheming Donna Joanna sets out to disrupt that.
It’s not really a spoiler to tell you that there’s a happy ending. Borachio and Conrade (Ciaran Stewart), doing Joanna’s dirty work, are caught out by Seacole (Amy Helena) and Oatcake (Leo Long) of the security staff. There are songs from Kit Kenneth’s Balthasar, a lively line-dance party and a lot of laughs, but it is when that dark shadow falls on the plot that this fast-paced production is at its most powerful. Beatrice is even given a moment when her autism takes over as she constantly flips her arm in emotion.
The different means of communication are beautifully integrated. The surtitles are continuous (though they could have done with being a bit brighter when I saw it, that not helped by having brighter lights hanging downstage of them). There is always someone signing in addition to the person speaking but sometimes the character too. Laura Goulden’s Margaret is kept very busy interpreting. In the case of Hero, deaf actress Claire Wetherall largely signs; which she does so for Friar Francis explaining his plan after her wedding has been aborted, there is a delightful reversal for it comes across as her idea.
Hastie’s modern interjections and revisions don’t stick out and taking “There’s the rub” from Hamlet in the massage scene when his friend lay the bait for eavesdropping Benedick is a sly borrowing.
This is a joyful Much Ado, if at three hours a long one. A shorter opening before the cast notice the audience could make catching that bus or train more certain. Check it out, it's worth seeing!
Much Ado is at Stratford for only a few days, but 8–12 November it will be at Salisbury Playhouse.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton