By William Shakespeare
Directed by Iqbal Khan
Date: Tuesday 31st July 2012
We’ve seen a number of Much Ados over the years; some have been splendid, some have failed to get off the ground, but tonight’s performance is undoubtedly in the former category. This was the final preview before press night, and from the pre-show director’s talk we learned that about twenty minutes had been cut from the previous performance (and at three and a half hours that was just as well!) so the cast were having to deal with lots of changes. That, the blocking and some clunky stagings were the reason for only rating this at 7/10; with practice the actors will speed up and from a different perspective we should see a lot more of the crucial scenes. It only remains for the director to tighten up a few scene changes and we’ll be well on our way to full marks.
In the pre-show talk, the director explained how he came to Michael Boyd’s attention, via Meera Syal. He also discussed the concept for the piece; at first he didn’t want ‘Asian’ and insisted on having a free choice to do the play in whatever way suited it. After some research, including a visit to Delhi, he felt modern India would fit the play better than setting it in the past – historical India has too many political resonances which would drown out the issues dealt with in the play. He treats the text with respect, not reverence, and considers that his job is to serve the audience, not the author. Over the years he has done a one and half hour Othello and a four hour Hamlet, so he clearly takes each production as it comes. He also likes to make use of what the actors bring – twenty heads are better than one. He was asked about caste issues; they did discuss these during rehearsals, but again the director felt that those concerns belong to another play. I did learn that darker skin means lower caste, which made Claudio’s comment about his second bride – “were she an Ethiop” – much more telling in this interpretation.
Now to the performance. Announcements both inside and outside the auditorium were made by Dogberry, and included ‘switch off your digital crotches’ and ‘do not abuse your mobile phones’. Photography was going to be acceptable for once, until another servant corrected him. The set was a wonderful paved courtyard space, with a building behind on two levels – three if you count the roof. A balcony had rooms to left and right of a central door, and a large tree in front of it to the right, with lots of branches and a seat underneath. There was a swing hanging on this tree from a branch to the right of it; normally hung up against the tree, the swing was brought down several times.
It was lovely to see that the balcony of Leonato’s house blended with the Courtyard balcony. There were stairs up to balcony on the left hand side of the house, and steps up to the stage at the front – we noticed the grille during the pre-show and realised there would be water. Both voms had been removed, but there were steps up to the stage at each side.
Before the start, the washing was hung up over the stage, and Leonato’s household were getting the sheets down. Verges (Ursula in most productions) was bossing everyone about, while Dogberry was joining in and getting so stroppy with the people up above that he banged his foot against a seat. I laughed at this, and got some choice remarks sent in my direction (nothing I couldn’t handle) about his bunion hurting. Other members of the household staff arrived, and we could also see Beatrice sitting up on the balcony with what looked like a folder or book; it turned out to be an iPad, which she brought down to show to the audience. Apparently her nephew had been setting her up with potential suitors, but she wasn’t impressed and showed us the picture of an elderly man sitting in his library, making some disparaging comments about his suitability. This section felt like we were part of the community of this house, neighbours who just happened to be sitting around, and certainly got me involved from the start. The band were back right for most of the play, under the balcony, then moved somewhere else and did a lap of honour at the end.
Hero and Margaret returned from a shopping trip, well laden, and showed off some of their purchases to Beatrice, who had returned to the balcony. Leonato arrived at the front of the stage, bearing the message about the prince, and at some point Verges sent everyone scurrying to prepare for visitors. They brought out a floral garland and a tray with the powder on it, which Beatrice held for her uncle when the prince arrived. Before that, the chat between her and the soldier was fun and he eventually conceded defeat with good grace.
Don Pedro arrived with his brother, Claudio and Benedick. For this scene, it was Don John blocking our view, but not too badly. Leonato greeted Don Pedro with the garland and put the spot on his forehead (tilak?), and then Beatrice and Benedick were into their battle of wits. When Leonato welcomed Don John, he was indeed “not of many words”, which got a laugh. When Claudio was talking with Don Pedro and Benedick about Hero, Dogberry and Borachio were clearing some things off the stage, and thus heard about Don Pedro’s plan to woo Hero on Claudio’s behalf. Claudio blocked my view of Benedick asking the prince to “constrain me to tell”, but from the delivery I could tell it was entertaining.
After these three left, we could see Dogberry whispering his version of the story to Antonio. Leonato called out to his brother from the balcony, and Antonio reported what he’d heard, while Dogberry slunk away before he could be called on to confirm the details. The next scene had Conrad and Don John on stage. A servant brought them bottles of beer, and while they were drinking and talking, Borachio came along with his news. Don John came across as someone who simply liked to be contrary, and given the downturn in his fortunes he was determined to cause as much trouble as he could. Borachio was another drinker – he was hardly ever without a drink in his hand before his arrest.
The party scene took a little while to set up, with Leonato and Antonio putting on scarves and some make up, while the women wore the men’s military jackets over their dresses and acted the male parts. There was a lively dance, with the Prince’s men also wearing scarves, and occasionally the rest of the dancers moved to the back of the stage so that a conversation could take place at the front. This included Margaret’s chat with Balthazar and Verges’ (Ursula’s) chat with Antonio. Her references to head-wagging were very appropriate.
After Beatrice and Benedick’s conversation most of the dancers left the stage, so only Claudio, moping on the tree seat, Don John and one of his followers were left. They stirred up Claudio, pretending to think he was Benedick, so Claudio stormed off when Benedick arrived to take him to the Prince, and Benedick also left when Beatrice arrived. I noticed it was Beatrice who found and brought Claudio to the Prince; clearly a competent woman.
Claudio’s halting protestations of love to Hero (once Don Pedro gave him the good news) were not highly thought of by the others, hence Beatrice’s plea to Hero to “let him not speak neither”. Don Pedro was upset at being refused by Beatrice, and I wasn’t sure how much his plan to have her and Benedick fall in love with each other was devised partly out of spite for that rejection.
Borachio and Conrad were drinking, or rather Conrad was too far gone to drink so one of the others took his bottle, for the scene where they planned Hero’s downfall, and Borachio helped Conrad off at the end. Don’t know why they went so far with the alcoholism. Then came the first gulling scene. One of the servants, a woman, was sitting on the swing. Benedick arrived, took off his shoes and sat on the bench, and asked her to go for his book. She demurred, so Benedick chased her off and then sat on the swing himself to deliver his next speech. It was rather rushed, and didn’t get the full humour out of his total refusal to wed followed by his detailed list of the attributes his bride would require – that may come with time.
When the three other men arrived, Benedick ran off the stage to begin with and then lurked round the far side next to the audience, while Leonato, Claudio and Don Pedro used the whole of the stage. Balthazar sang a funky Indian version of “Sigh no more”, which was very good, before leaving them to it. Leonato was having the usual difficulty in keeping up with the others, but managed to think of a funny story when prompted by the prince.
During this talk, the servant came back with the book, and was trying to give it to Benedick but couldn’t get his attention. After he took to the tree and then the balcony, she gave up and started listening to the story the others were telling. She even became part of the action after the “between the sheets” gag, falling to the ground and acting out Beatrice’s suffering as the story unfolded. Benedick was up on the roof at the end, and after he came down she was trying to give him the book still, but failed. Don Pedro and Claudio didn’t fancy leaving when Leonato said “My Lord, will you walk?” but fairly ran off the stage when he added “dinner is ready”.
This scene still needs work, I feel. The director made changes here before tonight’s performance, so that doesn’t help, but Benedick is so out of touch with the others when he’s up on the roof, and possibly out of sight of the audience as well, that it takes a lot of the fun out of the scene. The servant’s inclusion does add some humour, but at the expense of seeing Benedick being tricked into loving Beatrice, although I reckon he’s really being tricked into admitting his true feelings for her.
Beatrice came out with her mobile phone when she called Benedick to dinner. He was back on the swing at this point, with a stupid grin on his face. His attempts to make Beatrice’s surliness seem like indicators of love were funny. For Beatrice’s gulling, Hero gave Verges a phone and then went inside – we could see her behind the shutters of an upstairs room, where Margaret joined her after getting Beatrice involved. Verges and Hero conversed using the speakers on their mobiles. Meanwhile, Beatrice had been brought out onto the balcony, hair in a towel, bleaching cream on her top lip, and ended up on the tree seat just far enough round to appear hidden but without actually being out of sight.
I was aware that many of Hero and Verges’ comments were accurate; Beatrice does scorn all offers and turns “every man the wrong side out”. I found it harder to hear all the lines with this staging, but I got the gist. Verges moved over to the tree seat herself as the conversation progressed, and somewhere around “Yet tell her of it”, Beatrice slid round next to Verges who had to acknowledge her presence. Her lines after that were said with Beatrice right there, and when the ‘gulling’ was concluded and Beatrice was left alone, she took off the towel, wiped her lip, and resolved to requite Benedick’s love. She danced around a bit, waving the towel, then caught it in her arms and stood there, rocking it like a baby. After a few seconds she realised what she was doing and threw the towel down before heading off.
Benedick had been quick about getting shaved and putting on some hair dye. His hair had been grizzled at the start; now his black locks gleamed against his clean-shaven face. His military garb had been transformed into trousers and a long turquoise top, and if I hadn’t known who he was I might not have recognised him. He responded to the prince and Claudio’s barbs with spirit, and although his shaven face was revealed at the start of the scene, which is too soon for me, the overall effect was fine. Don John stirred up Claudio and the prince as usual, and then the watch arrived. They used the household servants for this, and made it out to be a special guard duty which they were doing on a one-off basis for the wedding. We were blocked again from seeing some of this scene, but the lines were OK. When Dogberry left the first time, the watch sat down on the steps, apart from one chap who squatted near us with a see-through umbrella over him.
The director mentioned that he’d cut two scenes together, and this was that spliced section. During the earlier scenes, the staff had set up a wedding platform underneath the tree. A mannequin stood to the left of this with the wedding dress on it, and for the first bit of this scene I could just make out Margaret and Hero on the platform, behind the chap with the umbrella. Then Dogberry came back briefly, and then I think they finished the scene on the platform with Beatrice’s arrival. After this, the women left, taking the wedding dress with them. Then it was the arrival of Borachio and Conrad, still drinking, to be arrested by the watch. The chap with the umbrella stood up to listen to the two men, and Borachio obviously took him for a tree, because he peed all over him. (This is becoming a little tedious now.) The others crept forward from the steps onto the stage, surrounded the villains and apprehended (or as Dogberry would say “comprehended”) them. Interval.
During the interval they finished setting up the stage for the wedding, and again Dogberry and Verges were bossing people about. Cloth streamers were handed out to the few members of the audience who had stayed in the auditorium with instructions to pass them back. Eventually they were all attached to wires and drawn up to form a canopy over the platform – a nice effect, but perhaps a little costly later on?
The second half started with Beatrice on the balcony singing “Sigh no more”, followed by Dogberry and Verges turning up to report their arrest of Conrad and Borachio. It seemed slightly strange that Leonato called Dogberry “good neighbour”, but it was even stranger that Dogberry and Verges were holding a pair of trousers each, presumably from the arrested men. They held the trousers up to show Leonato, but he was too focused on his daughter’s wedding, and sent them away. If only…
The wedding scene was very good, from what I could see of it. Dogberry and Verges got several audience members up on the stage and sitting on cushions. The families processed onto the stage from each side, and garlands were exchanged; Beatrice and Benedick also exchanged grimaces with theirs. Hero and Claudio sat side by side on the platform, and it all seemed to be going very well. The music was very lively, there was a lot of colour and smiling faces. What could possibly go wrong?
They were using the term ‘Pandit’ instead of “friar” for this scene, and they also used a microphone for the wedding ceremony, passing it from speaker to speaker. Claudio certainly used it when he accused Hero of not being a virgin, although it was put aside at some point. Hero stayed on the platform, collapsing there, while her father ranted near the front of the stage. I didn’t have the best view, because the stool in front of us was occupied during most of this bit, first by Antonio(?), then Benedick, then the Pandit (sigh). (As a result, though, I can grass up the Pandit; his comments about “noting of the lady” were spectacularly inaccurate tonight, as he spent very little time looking in her direction.)
Despite my restricted view, I was able to spot Margaret’s reaction to the story the prince and Claudio were telling. She clearly realised her part in all this, and left quickly. I hope to get a better idea of this scene another time, but it came across quite strongly all the same. The use of the microphone plus the upbeat start served to emphasise Hero’s public humiliation, and made Claudio and the prince’s acts all the more shocking.
After Hero was taken away, the scene between Benedick and Beatrice was very good; she was very strong, and he seemed to grow up a lot in this scene. I reckoned it was the emotional trauma that allowed them to come into some sort of relationship, especially the fact that Benedick supported her family and was on Hero’s side. Her line “Kill Claudio” raised a laugh, which I always find hard to understand. This is a serious request, and a sobering one, not some silly adolescent joke. Benedick’s response shows how reluctant he is to take such an extreme measure, thereby also emphasising his feelings for Beatrice when he eventually accepts the task.
After they left, the watch, their prisoners and the sexton arrived for the interrogation scene. Not only were Conrad and Borachio without their trousers, they were trussed together, back to back, so walking was difficult for them, They had to sit back to back on the stage while the sexton, who sat on the platform, took notes. The watch were much better at giving evidence than Dogberry and Verges, as usual, and the final insistence by Dogberry, that everyone “remember that I am an ass!”, was very funny.
Now the wedding platform and decorations had to be taken away, and this was done during Leonato and Antonio’s opening speeches in the next scene. The cloth streamers were lowered and unhooked, and finally dragged off through the doors, while the swags and other fancy bits were also removed. This took some time, and during it the two men had to be careful where they stood, as they could easily have disrupted the whole process by standing on a bit of cloth. There may also have been a reluctance to talk while the servants were around, but I think the main problem was the delaying effect of removing so much cloth from the stage. This slowed the start of this scene down so much that it almost stopped altogether, but once the stage was de-weddinged, the pace picked up with Leonato’s comment “My soul doth tell me Hero is belied”, and the rest of the scene, though slow, worked OK.
The verbal fisticuffs between the old men and the soldiers was a bit dull, possibly because of the earlier lack of pace, but once Benedick came on the energy lifted a bit. He handled the prince and Claudio’s mocking very well, staying focused on his primary intent, which was to challenge Claudio. The prince and Claudio reacted to the news that Don John had left, but without changing their attitude completely.
When Dogberry and the watch brought on the prisoners again, they were in an even worse state than before. Their shirts had gone, and they were still struggling to get on and off the stage tied together as they were. Borachio’s confession changed the situation, and Claudio knelt down and put his head to Leonato’s feet as he was apologising. Leonato handled things well, I thought, and for once Antonio didn’t react when Leonato suggested that Claudio should marry his niece, Antonio’s daughter “almost the copy of my child that’s dead”. Either he’s a bit slow on the uptake, hard of hearing, or the brothers had already planned this way of bringing Hero back to life (my preferred interpretation). I think Leonato gave Dogberry some paper money for his “pains”.
The next scene showed us Margaret, apparently recovered from her guilt over her part in Hero’s dishonouring, bantering with Benedick. After she left we were treated to Benedick’s appalling lack of talent in the musical department, followed by his inability to rhyme, all of which was mercifully cut short when Beatrice turned up. They sat on the swing together while they discussed their attraction to each other.
To create the setting for the scene in the memorial, the central part of the building was opened up while the side doors were folded back, creating a space on either side. They chose to have rain at the back of the stage, behind the building, and it ran forward, hence the grilles in the steps at the front. Several of the cast were out in the rain, with umbrellas keeping them dry. For the reciting of the poem, Claudio was at the front along with the prince and a veiled woman, didn’t see who. Steve remembers Hero being on the steps to the left, wearing a veil. Balthazar sang the song, standing on the little bit of balcony that remained, and after the prince and Claudio left to prepare for the wedding, Leonato and his family emerged from their mourning garb to make their own arrangements. Hero wasn’t entirely happy with her father at this point, refusing to embrace him, and who can blame her? With the women off the stage, Benedick made his request for Beatrice’s hand in marriage, and then the prince and Claudio returned for the final scene.
Given the amount of rain, the staff had been very busy drying the floor during all of this. Otherwise the set remained the same, although I did spot the ends of two carpets or rugs sticking out at the very back of the stage, off to the left, presumably to do with the wedding ceremony. As well as changing “friar” to ‘Pandit’, references to “church” had become ‘temple’, which worked just fine for me.
After the initial discussion, and Claudio making his remark about an “Ethiop”, the women returned. The prince and Claudio were confronted by four women with veils over their heads which were also held out on front of them. For once, I had no idea who was who, and neither did Benedick when he tried to find Beatrice, although I could guess which one she had to be. The exchange of written love letters was very good, with Beatrice reacting strongly to the inadequacy of Benedick’s efforts, then changing her response so as not to hurt his feelings. The prince sat near the front as Benedick told him to get a wife, and the news about Don John’s arrest was also quickly dealt with by Benedick.
They finished with a lively dance, Indian style, which went on for some time. I clapped along, but the audience was pretty unresponsive until the dance stopped, and then we all applauded well enough for two rounds of bows, with the musicians taking their lap of honour after the first lot. And a marvellous job they’d done, too.
Overall, the only problem with this production was the slow pace, which I suspect was largely due to the many changes the cast had had to assimilate plus the cumbersome scene changes. The dialogue was mostly clear, though the use of Indian accents sometimes blurred the lines too much. Again, that should improve with practice, and I’m looking forward to seeing this one again.
© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me