Much Ado About Nothing
The Lord Chamberlain's Men
Museum Gardens, York and touring
With an all male cast The Lord Chamberlain's Men aim to revive the traditions of Shakespearean theatre by performing in Elizabethan costumes and touring with their wooden cart. In this way they lay claim to offering their audiences 'a combination of innovation and tradition that is not shared by any other touring company'.
High claims indeed and with the vast variety of Shakespeare being performed around the country one can only expect great things from their summer 2008 production of Shakespeare's classic battle of the sexes in Much Ado About Nothing.
The show begins with a song and is punctuated throughout with the cast's singing, often led by the fantastic voice of Tom Micklem, playing Claudio. With each actor playing more than one these seven men play seventeen parts between them. As the men return from war led by the Prince, Don Pedro, they visit Leonato at his home in Messina. When the Prince's young friend Claudio meets Leonato's daughter, Hero, love and marriage promises follow quickly after. Meanwhile the sworn bachelor Benedick exchanges words of war with the witty Beatrice, Hero's cousin, and the battle lines are drawn for two of Shakespeare's sharpest tongued lovers. Contriving to match this perfectly suited, barbed pair, the Prince, Leonato and Claudio hatch a plot to entangle the proud quipsters.
While the scene may be set for 'happily ever after' the Prince's bitter brother, Don John undertakes to put a spanner in the works and smear Hero's good name. As the director outlines in the programme, the Elizabethan idea of 'no thing' could mean a euphemistic double entendre for female virginity and thus the play's title becomes a pun on more than just a theatrical comedy. And in swirling skirts these two 'women' fit the part with a delightful, young Hero played by Andrew Young and a spirited Beatrice in Nick Huntington.
Undoubtedly the stand out performance of the night, playing both Benedick and Verges, was Edward Harrison, bringing both fantastically crafted humour and subtle feeling to his role, despite his overstuffed red velvet trousers. He is supported by an excellent cast, as even Leonato (played by Darren Hill) takes a few perfectly timed, cheeky swipes at Benedick. In the comedy the cast make great use of the hedgerow that appears on stage and in the play's darker moments, when Claudio sings a lament for the reportedly dead Hero, the evening is filled with cold loss and aching regret. Supported by the fantastic setting of the ruined St Mary's abbey in York's Museum Gardens the wooden stage give the actors little room but director Andrew Normington makes excellent use of it.
Although Peter Stickney's Dogberry pales in comparison to Beatrice and Benedick's clowning behind the garden bushes, this sparsely conceived but beautifully executed production keeps the audience grinning all night. As the walls finally come down and Benedick sweeps Beactrice into a kiss, gender becomes irrelevant in a fantastically played and endearingly told, timeless story. With Don Pedro, Leonato and Claudio's earlier exclamation to the crowd that they are 'the only love-gods', we can only be inclined to agree.
Reviewer: Cecily Boys