Much Ado About Nothing
St Stephen's, Hampstead
In Much Ado About Nothing, one of Shakespeare's most popular and accessible comedies, characters are forced to see themselves, and others, in a new light.
It is often said that the power of Shakespeare lies in his ability to transcend the centuries and seem relevant to any era. In this lovely version, producers Ben Horslen and John Risebero, for Antic Disposition, are generally successful in transporting sixteenth century Messina to a celebratory, post-war 1940's setting, replete with fairy lights, bunting, and girls in floral dresses, where returning soldiers must reassign their martial language and attitudes to the complicated world of civilian love.
The plot, in a nutshell, concerns two examples of convoluted romance: the younger Claudio, whose beloved Hero must navigate spurious accusations of infidelity along the way to marriage; and the older Beatrice and Benedick, each burned by the other in a former life and protesting a bit too much against the idea of love, who find rekindled passion, aided and abetted by their friends' well-meant machinations.
This play stands or falls on the chemistry between the latter couple: Anouke Brook is a fine Beatrice, displaying an innate ease with Elizabethan English, and capturing the pathos of a woman who, despite her brave face, fears love may have passed her by; Ashley Cook is a perfect foil and has genuine charm. The famous arbor scene, where the lovers 'accidently on purpose' hear the secrets of their own hearts, is made fresh by the ingenious use of a trestle table, a vase, and some tall sunflowers.
Sympathy for Claudio's 'poor hurt fowl' can be hard to muster, but Brage Bang (equally impressive as a comic watchman) reminds us that he is very young, ripe for being influenced by the worldly-wise Don Pedro (James Hutchinson) and allowed to make stupid mistakes.
The cast is impressive, with many doubling as minor characters. Their singing and dancing, led by the mellifluous Sophie Cosson (Margaret) is joyous. Chris Waplington is notable as a sinister, eavesdropping Borachio, showing great comic timing in his drunken scenes and believable remorse at his part in Hero's 'downfall'. And Jonathan Pembroke and James Pellow manage to elicit laughs from the audience as the (often tedious) Dogberry and Verges: no mean feat.
An early modern understanding of the melancholic/malcontent, assumed to be the cause of trouble by his very 'type' does not translate so well, but Damien Warren-Smith gives a new reading to Don John, conveying a man of mystery and bitterness, perhaps hardened by the war experience.
But the real star of the show has to be the setting. How delicious it is to discover that the derelict St Stephen's, Hampstead, has been restored to its former gothic grandeur, with cool stone columns and alcoves providing natural entrances and exits, in a similar vein to the Open Air Theatre at Regent's Park. Bathed in early summer evening sunshine we, too, are able to see things in a different light.
Reviewer: Anita-Marguerite Butler