Much Ado About Nothing – YPS – September 2006

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by John Hartoch

Company: Bristol Old Vic Theatre School

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Tuesday 5th September 2006

This was excellent. But for the severe truncation of the play, it would have been a 10/10 performance. I was amazed to find these actors had completed only the first year of a two-year course – several looked so accomplished I would have thought they were already professionals.

Although this telling was succinct, there was time to cover all the high points of the full version, and to include some original business as well. At the beginning, two soldiers march a surly-looking fellow (Don John?) onto stage. Leaving him in the middle, they march to one side and prepare to fire. Another man appears (the Prince?), and gives the signal to shoot. The guns fire, and streamers shoot out – it’s a joke! Not that the chap being shot at enjoys it much.

Then the regular plot starts, with Leonato telling his daughter and niece of the Prince’s return. I was delighted with this Beatrice (Emma Clifford). She nailed Beatrice’s character beautifully – full of chiding without any real malice, but unable to hold her tongue for long. Michelle Lukes was as lively a Hero as I’ve seen, registering a lot more of the character’s emotions, especially during her repudiation at the church. Adam Thomas gave a good performance as Leonato. An older student, he had the advantage of his own years to convey Leonato’s, and he carried the part well, doing a good impression of a bumbling amateur during the deception of Benedick.

When the men arrive, we confirm that the characters in the initial mime were indeed the Prince and Don John. Oliver Millingham plays the Prince as a lively man, fond of practical jokes and arranging other people’s lives for them. Claudio (David Oakes) is tall, handsome and full of nobility and courage, while Benedick (Peter Basham) is a robust type, older than Claudio, and with a healthy dislike of marriage. He pines to “see a bachelor of three score again.” His sparring with and wooing of Beatrice were lively and entertaining, and he moved into the more sombre scenes smoothly and convincingly. His was one of the best performances in a good all-round cast.

Don John was a credible villain, sulking even more after his humiliation at the fake firing squad. Neil Jennings doubled this part with the second watchman, which gave him a chance to show a lighter touch in a comedic role. Another of the best performances came from Nick Whitley as Borachio. He slipped onto stage during the Prince’s promise to woo for Claudio, and seeing what was going on, hid himself behind the curtain to overhear. After they left, he strolled onto the stage, bottle in hand, to let us know his intentions. Nick looked very assured and gave plenty to this small, but important, supporting role. Don John’s other servant, Conrad, was played by Paul Jellis, who also played the friar. Conrad was fine, and I liked the friar, especially when he settled up with the Prince once Benedick agrees to marry.

The parts of Hero and Margaret were being alternated, and today Margaret was played by Notzarina Reevers, doubling with first watchman. Both of these were good performances. Margaret had her flounces from time to time, but she was still the loyal maid enjoying her part in snaring Beatrice for Benedick. First and second watchmen were a great double act, as first watchman had to assert her authority and retain her pike (they only had one between them!). She did this easily, and took to swinging it around in a dangerous manner, as when Dogberry is questioning Conrad and Borachio. Good fun.

So to Dogberry (David Edenfield) and Verges (Matt Barber, doubling as Messenger). Dogberry is such a difficult part to do nowadays, and I’ve rarely enjoyed it. This part was naturally cut right down, yet the character came across just fine, and the climactic “O that I had been writ down an ass!” was very funny. One of the few parts that benefited from the cuts. Verges and Messenger were small parts, and well done, though without much scope for catching the eye.

The set was very simple, as they have to be. Apparently they must be able to be set up and taken down in ten minutes. A curtain formed of four parts hung at the back of the thrust, with words from the play writ large across it. Underneath these were printed dictionary definitions of some of the words, e.g. love, honour, scorn, folly, etc. Two boxes covered in cloth stood towards either side of the curtain, with individual words on each side, echoing the curtain’s decoration. These boxes were moved forward, singly or together, to form seats, tables, plant pots, etc., and other props were added as needed; chairs, trees, altar cloth, and so on. Live music came mostly from behind the curtain, and sometimes on stage or from the sides. They’re a talented bunch, these actors, as they played all the instruments themselves.

The costumes picked up the general theme, as most of the outfits had a word or two painted on them. The Duke had both “Love” and “Scorn” on his trouser legs, Claudio had “Noble”, Benedick had “Sport” and Beatrice had “Scorn” across her stomach. The Prince was in off-white, Leonato in grey, and Don John in black. Because it was so short, there were no costume changes, so Hero had to start off in her wedding dress (white, drop-waisted, with a voile skirt), while Beatrice was wearing bright red, and Margaret wore a fetching blue number. The watch had pudding basin helmets.

One obvious difference from yesterday was the power of delivery. These guys could really fill the space, vocally. I heard virtually every word clearly, and they obviously knew what their characters were saying as well. There were a few problems with sightlines being blocked, but that’s a natural hazard in this space. All in all, this was an amazing production.

Some of the business has already been covered. The scene where the Prince, Claudio and Leonato convince Benedick of Beatrice’s love was a masterpiece. With Benedick lurking behind the curtain, though not completely out of sight, the Prince dishes out the ‘parts’ to the other players. Leonato, an enthusiastic amateur, manages to drop too many of his pages, and there’s a lovely moment of panic as all three scramble to find his lines. As the Prince and Claudio walk and talk, Claudio’s sword accidentally pulls back the curtain, threatening to reveal Benedick, who has to grab it to stay concealed. This amuses the others so much, they make another pass by the curtain to repeat the trick. Frankly, they were laughing so much that it nearly made Benedick a liar when he says their conference was “sadly borne”.

Finally, to tie the production up, the introductory scene was repeated – Don John was led onto stage, the firing squad prepared to shoot, the Prince raised his hand to give the signal – and then the lights went out, leaving us with a lovely, ambiguous ending. We all loved it so much we applauded past the house lights going up, so they took their final curtain call in semi gloom. Great fun, and I hope they all do well in their future careers.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me