aka Much Ado About Nothing
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Christopher Luscombe
Date: Wednesday 29th October 2014
Brilliant. We’d heard from one or two sources that this version of Much Ado had been altered to make it fit into the Love’s Labour’s Lost mould, and that it was less enjoyable as a result. Not a bit of it. We realised early on that the impact of the Great War was being completely ignored, and that the play’s lightness and jollity were intact, even if the text had been well trimmed. The set was basically the same, although there were some different locations, and with the passing of four years, the style of the costumes had altered to fit.
We were just off the centre aisle and three rows back, so our view was pretty good. The opening set was still the library, only this time there were hospital beds on each side and a stove in the middle in front of the desk. Bandages and medicine bottles stood on the mantelpiece, there was a small trolley back left which I couldn’t see in detail and a woven basket between the rows of beds whose contents were a mystery and which was shunted off somewhere during the first scene. There were two large filing cabinets to the right of the fireplace and some greenery was hung in various places which suggested that Christmas was on its way.
When the music began, the lights went down and the opening cast took their places. The women were dressed as nurses while Leonato was in army uniform, as was the soldier who had brought the message about Don Pedro’s arrival. I noticed that the first of these paired plays had started with the men and this one began with the women (in terms of the romantic couples). Again there was the sound of a typewriter, possibly Hero typing up the inventory. Beatrice was sitting on one of the beds to begin with, but when she joined in the conversation, she got up and started preparing the beds with blankets and pillows.
The banter between Beatrice and the messenger was fine, and then a group of soldiers arrived and lined up along the front of the stage, facing the library. Some wore bandages while Don John, skulking on the left walkway, had a crutch. Leonato came forward to meet them and after the opening greetings, Don Pedro, Benedick, Claudio, Don John and the rest came into the room. While Don John, Claudio and Benedick settled themselves onto three of the beds, Leonato led Don Pedro and the others out of the room, which lent weight to Beatrice’s comment to Benedick that “nobody marks you”. They fell to their usual sparring, and after his refusal to continue – he sat on his bed with a book – she left the room herself.
Don Pedro came back in to tell Benedick and Claudio about Leonato’s generous offer of hospitality, and Don John was barely able to say “I thank you”; his surly nature was apparent early on. The men left the room to follow Don Pedro, but Claudio called Benedick back when he was almost out of the door to confess his secret love for Hero. Benedick shut the door when he realised their conversation was to be confidential, and as the dialogue was being done at a fair lick tonight, it wasn’t long before Don Pedro was back. Benedick was blatant in signalling the existence of a secret with “I would your grace would constrain me to tell”, and Don Pedro obligingly assisted him – “I charge thee on thy allegiance”. What could the poor boy do? Don Pedro’s shocked reaction to “He is in love” was very funny, and the following dialogue was nicely edited to keep it clear and crisp. Benedick left, and Don Pedro arranged to woo Hero on Claudio’s behalf. While they were discussing this, a footman entered with a couple of drinks on a tray, gliding out just before the final line, and it was obvious that he’d heard the plotting.
With that scene finished, the room was darkened and drawn back, while Antonio, Leonato’s brother, stood front left talking with the very same footman. As Leonato came on front right, the footman left and the brothers had their little chat. Balthazar came on with some sheets of music towards the end of this, so that Leonato could walk off with him to discuss the evening’s entertainment, and then the centre of the stage opened and a billiard table rose up very sedately (it took a long time) for the next scene. This was slow to start, as Conrad was playing and made a couple of shots before he missed and Don John could take his turn. Their dialogue came in between shots, as it were, but despite this slower pace, the information and intentions came across clearly. Don John shook his crutch when mentioning his “clog”, and then the footman arrived and we realised he was indeed Borachio (as we had suspected). He passed on the useful piece of gossip he’d picked up – never upset the servants in one of these old-fashioned country houses, they can make your life hell – and this cheered Don John so much that one corner of his mouth twitched ever so slightly in an upwards direction. They had set up a trick shot during the scene – we couldn’t actually see the balls from our angle, but we’ve seen that sort of thing done before – and to close the scene Don John pushed one of the balls down towards the far end of the table. The ball went round the angles and obligingly dropped into the front left pocket, which raised a smattering of applause. It took Don John a few moments to get his crutch in place, and then he limped off followed by the others, while the table sank down again.
When the change was complete, we were in the music room. The piano was still back right, but there was a HUGE Christmas tree back left with lots of baubles, tinsel and lights. Various chairs and sofas were placed around the room, and there was a table with decanters and glasses just in front of the tree. The curtains were drawn across the full-length windows, and the place looked very festive.
This scene had a very cosy family feel to it, with Beatrice free to express her feelings about marriage (very little editing) and Leonato preparing Hero for Don Pedro’s substitute wooing. When Beatrice was giving her “wooing, wedding and repenting” speech, she pranced around the room to illustrate the various measures and collapsed behind the sofa on “and sink into his grave”. It was all very jolly, and was followed by the military men arriving in full-face masks. There was a song and a dance – Come Live With Me And Be My Love – and while Don Pedro took Hero off stage for their private chat, Margaret and Ursula had their snippets of dialogue with Balthazar, still at the piano, and Antonio, who completely failed to convince either Ursula or the audience that he wasn’t himself. Benedick and Beatrice came back on for their banter, with Benedick putting on some accent or other to avoid discovery. They ran round the sofa a bit – Benedick was clearly upset at being ridiculed so mercilessly – and when they left, Don John seized the opportunity to slip his poisoned lie into Claudio’s ear. That young man was all too easily fooled, and the rest of the scene unfolded as usual. Benedick found Claudio unhappy, and reported the situation to Don Pedro when he arrived. He then went into his lengthy rant against Beatrice – Don Pedro couldn’t get a word in edgewise, and God knows he tried! Beatrice came on with Claudio just as Benedick was getting to the end, so heard what he was saying, but she kept her composure. She looked a bit unhappy later though, after Benedick had asked to be sent away, been refused and left anyway. She made good use of her lines “he lent it me a while…your grace may well say I have lost it” to show that they had history.
Count Claudio was not as “‘Seville’ as an orange” tonight, one line which I would have liked them to have kept. The bringing together of the love birds was just as awkward and nauseating as it should be (or sweet, if you prefer) and then Beatrice found herself in deep waters when she rashly asked Don Pedro if he had a spare brother to be her husband. He was in earnest when he proposed to her, but kept it light-hearted and covered his disappointment well when she turned him down. Once she had left to deal with “those things [Leonato] told [her] of”, Don Pedro was soon plotting to match her and Benedick together, and the others gave him their support.
No need to change the room this time, but the next scene was played at the front of the stage in a corridor somewhere. Borachio did his best to cheer up Don John by proposing a really nasty scheme to slander Hero and get Claudio to call off the wedding. They had to pause occasionally as there were other members of staff passing through carrying various items. When Don John agreed to use his plan, a discreet cough from Borachio prompted the offer of one thousand ducats reward – not just a miserable git but a skinflint as well.
Back in the music room, there was no sign of any boy nor any need for a book. Pausing only to pour himself a stiff drink, Benedick went straight into “I do wonder that one man…”. Again, the pace was brisk but it was still enjoyable, although it didn’t get as many laughs as I’ve known before. When Don Pedro, Leonato, Claudio and Balthasar approached, Benedick hid behind the curtains to the rear of the piano, and while Balthasar played and sang – Sigh No More, Lady – Benedick stuck his head out between the curtains (after the first verse) and we went into an homage to Morecambe and Wise. Benedick’s head stayed at the same level to begin with, but then it moved up, and up, and down, and to one side, and then to the other side before being pulled back. It was funny, and we had a good view of it, though we usually prefer the comic business to be more text-based. The song was done in a contemporary style to the period and the band joined in part way through – another surreal touch.
Once the song finished, there were a few more lines with Balthasar, and then the gulling began. Don Pedro’s opening gambit startled Benedick; he came out from behind the curtains and may have said a line before hiding behind the tree. Leonato had difficulty thinking of things to say, but the others helped him as best they could. When it came to “Benedick and Beatrice between the sheets”, the tree began shaking, and shortly afterwards, Benedick’s face appeared through a gap near the top of the tree. The conversation was definitely getting to him, and he moved upwards, putting his face through a large circular decoration made of lights right at the top of the tree. The lights had just gone out, so the others moved over towards the tree and Don Pedro fiddled with various bulbs to get them working again. He replaced one of the bulbs, the lights came back on, and Benedick received a shock – his face disappeared immediately from the hole. Claudio’s remark “He doth indeed show some sparks…” came just after this, which added to the fun.
This was thirsty work, so Leonato topped up his guests’ glasses. As he turned back towards the table, a hand came out from the tree holding an empty glass, and Leonato, ever the gracious host, filled that one up too before tapping it with his own glass – cheers. Their task done, the men left Benedick alone, and we laughed when he came out from his hiding place. His face was smeared with black, his hair went in all directions, he had bits of tree stuck about his person and a bauble hung from his top pocket. He coughed, and a shower of dust came out; he took a drink immediately afterwards. His rationalisation of their trick was good fun, and when Beatrice came in to bid him “come into dinner”, he was sprawled on the sofa in what he presumably thought was an attractive come-hither pose – it wasn’t. She picked up a decanter of claret – obviously didn’t want to waste the journey – and headed off having delivered her lines. The totally delusional nature of Benedick’s next speech was a delight. Reading a double meaning into “Against my will I am sent to bid you come into dinner” is a clear indication of insanity, and this Benedick was far gone. Before leaving, he went over to the piano to pick up Beatrice’s picture – there were a number of family photos displayed there – and danced with it as the room slid back.
I assume there was music to cover this change of scene. After the room disappeared, the front door came down and the lawn was exposed. There was a wreath on the door, and it must have been cold as Hero, Ursula and Margaret were all wearing their winter coats. Margaret was sent to entice Beatrice out, and then Ursula and Hero discussed tactics. Ursula had an Irish accent and was very excitable, but she calmed down when the actual deception got underway and played her part well.
Beatrice appeared from the left tower, and ran across the space to the right tower where she snuck upstairs and opened a window so she could listen in. Ursula and Hero obligingly moved over to stand under it, though they moved around a fair bit later on. They had one particular mannerism which was very funny; whenever one of them used the word “wit” in relation to Beatrice, they both rolled their eyes and threw their hands out to either side in a sign of exasperation, giving a little sigh of disgust at the same time. When they left, Beatrice came downstairs and gave us her few lines – she seemed quite moved by what she’d heard, and walked off thoughtfully.
Like Benedick’s beard, the next section was completely cut, so all we got was the encounter between Don John and his brother, with Claudio invited to attend as well. This was staged on the front lawn and was soon over, with the interval coming after Don John’s final line – “so will you say when you have seen the sequel.” (Steve thinks that there was a bit of the banter with Benedick still in this performance, just without reference to the beard; I’m not so sure, but I want these notes to be as complete as possible.)
After the interval the location had changed to a more open space, with the archway between the towers at the back and the lawn in front. I could see snow sprinkled on the ground at the very back, through the archway. It was dark, and lots of cast members came on carrying lanterns. Spread out around the space, they sang In The Bleak Midwinter – very nice – and then the lights came up a bit more and Dogberry cycled onto the stage. Those cast members not in the watch left with the lanterns, while Dogberry and Verges did their best to instruct the watch in their duties. This worked reasonably well, with some of the mangled words being funny for once. The watch carried agricultural implements – scythe, fork, hoe, that sort of thing – and gathered round Verges for advice on what to do if a child cried in the night. Dogberry interrupted and cut him short, and when the watch was about to leave, Verges whispered something to Dogberry who called the men back and told them to keep an eye on Leonato’s door. That done, Dogberry pedalled off, Verges left on foot and the watch, hearing someone approach, hid behind the archway.
Borachio had clearly been celebrating with his thousand ducats, and Conrad seemed only too happy to sponge off the man who was buying the drinks. They took shelter by the right tower initially, but moved to the front of the stage as Borachio’s tale developed; fortunately a lot of the unnecessary dialogue was cut from this scene. This watch wasn’t particularly intimidating, but they were three to two and armed, so Borachio and Conrad decided to comply with their arrest.
Hero’s bedroom came up through the middle of the stage with Hero, Margaret and Ursula already there, sorting through Hero’s things in preparation for the big event. Her room seemed remarkably cramped, but then it’s only a short scene: a bed, cheval mirror (frame only) dressing table and chair and possibly another chair. For once, I didn’t pay too much attention to the set. The dresses on show looked lovely, and we got most of Margaret’s description of the Duchess of Milan’s gown.
Beatrice came in wearing pyjamas and with her hair in curlers. She was drinking some tea when Margaret was recommending cold cures, and sprayed it out rather forcibly on “Benedictus”. Ursula was all excited again when she came in to announce the arrival of the menfolk, which got Hero all excited too. With Margaret and Ursula helping, she started dressing herself while the room sank down again, clearing the way for the next scene.
The archway was still the location where Leonato, dressed very elegantly for the occasion, met Dogberry and Verges. They were suitably obtuse, and there was some business with the bicycle – putting it on its stand, moving it around – which underscored the relationship between the two constables. Leonato’s impatience was completely understandable, and the close proximity of Borachio’s deception to the wedding itself came across strongly. Again there was more humour than usual in the wordplay, and I found myself wondering what on earth Dogberry thought “tedious” meant (he wishes all of his ‘tediousness’ on Leonato). Leonato sent them off to examine the men themselves, and I felt a twinge of anxious frustration – if only Leonato had taken the time to speak to the “auspicious persons”, so much suffering could have been avoided.
Now came the wedding scene, though as a number of people have pointed out in the various talks we’ve attended, there is actually no proper wedding at all. In fact, it was against the law to show the main church offices on stage, so whether Shakespeare’s audience would have been on tenterhooks in case this was going to be a ground-breaking (and law-breaking) event, or totally relaxed ‘cause they knew the wedding was going to be called off, I have no idea. In any case, the church interior slid forward gently, and gave us a beautiful setting for what is the darkest scene of the play. The door was centre back, there were several Gothic arches, a round stained glass window above the door and several rows of pews on either side of the aisle which led down to the front. A couple of tall candles on stands flanked the forward area, and the vicar was standing near these. It was a lovely and intimate setting, emphasised by a hymn in the background, sung in Latin.
I think Don Pedro, Don John, Claudio and Benedick came in at the start of this scene, and took their places in the left-hand pews. The other guests were already in place, and then Hero was led in by her father, with Beatrice carrying her train; she and Leonato sat in the right-hand front pew once Hero was safely delivered to stand beside her future husband. The vicar blocked my view of Claudio during this early part of the scene, but he moved back to the aisle when Claudio asked him to “stand by” and the rest of the events were all too painfully visible.
So much was going on that I wasn’t able to catch it all. At some point during Claudio’s rejection of Hero, Benedick stood up, startled by this turn of events. Don Pedro remained seated, and delivered his damning lines from there. Beatrice was concerned for her cousin, especially when Hero collapsed to the floor, and her anger came out later. Don John put in his two penn’orth (a bastard in more than one sense of the word) and I was very aware that Claudio sincerely believed what he said, such was Don John’s power to manipulate others. This made him seem less feeble than some Claudio’s we’ve seen, suggesting that he had at least a sense of integrity. I felt that his redemption later on could be more plausible than usual.
I don’t think Margaret was in the church when Don Pedro detailed the ‘evidence’ which he and Claudio had witnessed the night before – I usually check for any reaction if she’s there and I couldn’t spot her, but as everyone was now standing, she may have been hidden from me. Leonato’s angry rant after Don Pedro and the others left was a bit weak in my opinion, and didn’t match the clarity of performance achieved by the rest of the cast, but the others held the scene together and brought out the awfulness of Claudio’s accusation. Beatrice started to help Leonato out of the church, but the vicar took him by the arm and so she returned to the front pew to sit and weep, or possibly to pray. Either way, she expected to be alone, but Benedick glanced back from the doorway and came to talk with her, having shut the church door to give them some privacy.
This encounter between the two lead characters was very well done. They made it moving and funny, and although I never laugh at “kill Claudio” – I don’t see how people can if they’ve really engaged with what’s just happened to Hero and her family – there was the usual outburst on that line. Just before that, they kissed after she declared “I love you with so much of my heart that none is left to protest”, which was sweet, and then she broke into anger when he initially refused to challenge Claudio to a duel.
I was aware of a number of things with this interaction: that she didn’t believe he would challenge Claudio, which is why she said “but no such friend”; she wanted Claudio killed, and only after Benedick demurred did she link her demand to his professed love for her; and the seriousness of the challenge came across very clearly – this was no foregone conclusion but a serious risk. Benedick couldn’t get a word in during Beatrice’s long rant about Claudio’s perfidy – he tried – and they parted on better terms though not cheerfully. As Benedick left the church, Beatrice knelt down in front of the altar to pray.
As the church slid back, the policemen, the watch and their prisoners made their way onto the stage. They took a little time, as the next scene was set in a kitchen which rose up from below. I did think it might be the kitchen of the big house, but it was a bit small for that, and later I found out it was meant to be Dogberry’s kitchen, the local constable having to use his own house as the police station.
With the kitchen area being so packed with ‘stuff’, the scene was quite hard work to follow as I scribbled furiously in my notebook. Fortunately they took it slow, so even with all the extra information I noted up, the ‘comic’ business managed to drag. First the set: the table was in the middle and had two chairs, one on either side. To the left – the door was front left – stood a sink and drainer, and on the floor I could see a dog bowl. At the back was the stove, with a clothes horse in front of it and various items hung above it – I think these included some pots and pans, herbs, etc. To the right was an ironing board and some other furniture, possibly the coal scuttle. There was smoke coming out of the stove-pipe, and tea things on the table.
They found a small stool for the sexton to sit on, and placed him at the far end of the table as we looked at it. Verges sat on the left and Dogberry, when he finally sat down, on the right. Borachio and Conrad were behind the sexton, and the rest of the watch were squeezed in as well, with one of them drying the dishes. The room was very full.
Tea was poured out for the sexton, Verges and Dogberry, and there was some humour (very slight) when Dogberry passed a cup to Borachio, then realised it was his own cup and took it back. As the interrogation got underway, Dogberry became so agitated that he got up and started doing his ironing – some people found that funny – then he sat down again and took a mouthful of biscuit which was sprayed out again at some point. One of the watch gave quite sensible answers once he got a chance to speak – he was the one drying the dishes.
When the sexton discovered what had happened, he realised the urgency of the matter and told Dogberry to bring the prisoners immediately to Leonato’s house. Then the whole scene ground to a halt as they became aware that the sexton was hemmed in on all sides, and with so little room and so many people, it was going to be difficult to let him out. Eventually someone hit on the idea of moving the table round along with the people so the sexton could reach the door. This involved picking up the teapot and then the table and everyone shuffling round – the longest route, of course – and they were so engrossed in that activity that the sexton missed his opportunity to get out and ended up back where he started. Finally he squeezed past the others and left, still holding the teapot. He returned a few moments later when he realised, and gave the teapot back to Dogberry, who mimed how hot it still was. Some people found this very funny, but it left us unimpressed.
When Dogberry came back into the kitchen – yes, that’s right, the scene isn’t over yet – he put his foot in the dog bowl, and finally Conrad had his opportunity to insult the man. Dogberry was suitably incensed, and tremendously frustrated that the sexton was no longer present to write down “coxcomb” and “ass”. He was so upset that once the prisoners had been taken away, he used the clothes horse as a Zimmer frame to walk around the kitchen a bit, before sitting down at the table for the final “O that I had been writ down an ass”.
The slow nature of this scene must have affected the mechanisms, because there was a long pause as the kitchen didn’t go down completely. The top half of Dogberry was clearly visible as we waited, and he did at least get a laugh when he offered someone a cup of tea. A stage hand or two came on and brought a ladder – much laughter. They left it in the pit and quickly left the stage, so Dogberry had to clamber out on his own – even more laughter. We were sitting there for so long that I even had a chance to read the sign hung on the chimney of the stove; “Depart from wit and do good” – very appropriate.
The front door finally came fully down at the back, and after another few minutes the kitchen descended properly to cheers and applause. Another cheer greeted the lawn resurfacing and then we were left with an empty stage while they did whatever else needed to be done backstage. The lights went down, the music for the scene change started up again and we were off. Leonato had come on previously, but left while the problem was fixed, so he and Antonio made their entrances again. Their conversation wasn’t as clear as I would have liked, but then Don Pedro and Claudio arrived and the confrontation began. There still wasn’t enough power in Leonato’s dialogue for me, but the others kept the energy up until Leonato and Antonio left.
Benedick’s arrival wasn’t as pleasant for Don Pedro and Claudio as they’d hoped. He stayed aloof and formal, and drew Claudio to one side of the stage to issue the challenge. Some of the banter was cut, and the news that Don John had fled from Messina both surprised and worried Don Pedro and Claudio.
After Benedick left, Dogberry, Verges and a couple of the watch brought on Borachio and Conrad. They had nearly brought them to the front door when Don Pedro stopped them to ask what offence they had committed. He didn’t respond in kind to Dogberry’s nonsensical answer, but straightaway asked the men themselves what they’d done. Borachio’s answer struck both men hard, and Claudio’s grief was strongly expressed. Leonato came back on without his brother, so there was no reaction either way when he told Claudio that to make amends he would have to marry Antonio’s daughter, Leonato’s niece, in place of Hero. Claudio went to shake Leonato’s hand, but the old man wouldn’t take it; not yet, at any rate. After the principals left the stage to attend to the eulogy for Hero, Dogberry carried on with his lines, and added a twitch as well to make it even funnier – I enjoyed this part more than the kitchen. Borachio was led away, but Verges, after a glance at Conrad, followed Dogberry off stage, and Conrad was left alone to make his escape.
The lights went down and there was music and singing while the tomb rose up near the front of the stage. It was pretty elaborate, with lots of carving, and there was a bell chiming in the background. It was also outside, so the mourners were wearing their coats as they walked forward towards it, with Claudio in the lead. As the singing continued, we spotted Hero watching out of the left tower window; presumably she was satisfied with what she saw. Claudio laid a wreath on the tomb, and then they left the stage. We only got the singing, no dialogue for this scene.
The tomb descended OK – whew! – and then the music room became visible through the arch, with Beatrice sitting on one of the sofas. Benedick called Margaret out and they had their little bit of banter on the lawn before Margaret left to fetch Beatrice. Benedick then tried to practice a song but broke off, as he was pretty dreadful – we found it very funny. His complaint about the difficulty in finding suitable rhymes for his verse was enjoyable too, and during it we could see Margaret in the background talking to Beatrice, who got up and left the room.
She was obviously keen to see Benedick, as she came out without her coat. She kissed him after he reported that he had challenged Claudio, and she took his scarf to help keep herself warm. Their banter was cut, so that we went from “Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably” to “how doth your cousin” (approximately). While Ursula gave them the good news and called them back in, we could see the rest of the family assembling in the music room behind, and as Beatrice and Benedick left the stage, the room slid forward and we were back on track with Act 5 scene 4.
After the opening dialogue, Antonio left with the women through the rear French window, and Benedick asked Leonato for permission to marry Beatrice. Don Pedro and Claudio arrived, and Benedick also left the room to call the women back in – the dialogue between him, Don Pedro and Claudio was cut as I recall. The women entered with veils over their heads, and Hero stepped forward at the appropriate moment. Claudio seemed chastened and sincere when he vowed to be her husband, and was naturally surprised and delighted when Hero revealed herself. The other women took off their veils at the same time, so Beatrice wasn’t hidden from Benedick.
With the serious bit over, Benedick and Beatrice discovered that they weren’t in love with each other after all, and then their respective love poems were brought out by Hero and Claudio – oops! Benedick laughed when he read Beatrice’s, she retched at his, but then they accepted the inevitable, kissed (celebrations all round) and made up. Beatrice was reluctant to hug Claudio at first – still some issues there – but she overcame her feelings eventually and welcomed him into the family.
The messenger arrived with the news about Don John having been taken prisoner, but Benedick sent him off and waved to get the music going – this time it was a record player that gave us an instrumental version of Come Live With Me And Be My Love. The cast all got together and danced, gradually leaving the stage to Beatrice and Benedick. They realised they were alone and took a final kiss, and that was the end of the play. They took their first bows alone, and then the rest of the cast came back on to receive their applause as well. The music started up again, and this time the cast danced as individuals, moving around so they could take their bows to the different sides of the auditorium. The audience was clapping along at this point, and then we finished with general applause as they sang a final round of Come Live With Me. A great way to end a fantastic evening.
© 2014 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me