Love’s Labour’s Won – October 2014

Experience: 9/10

aka Much Ado About Nothing

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Christopher Luscombe

Venue: RST

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.

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Much Ado About Nothing – September 2012

9/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Iqbal Khan

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Thursday 13th September 2012

Third time around and there was much more detail in the performances, including some more changes by the director, especially in the gulling scenes. This was part of the Supporters evening, and was followed by a lovely meal in the Ashcroft room, which was so well attended that they only had enough cast for one per table. We were honoured to have Madhav Sharma, Leonato himself, sitting next to us for the entire meal, and he was an entertaining companion with plenty of amusing and interesting stories.

For the play itself, I may not be able to get the changes noted up in order, but here goes. The bickering between Beatrice and Benedick in the first scene was a dead giveaway – they could have been married already. I heard three “Bendy Dick”s tonight – the first when Benedick left the Prince and Claudio alone, the second one I’ve forgotten, and the third just before the weddings at the end, which I’d spotted during an earlier performance. When Hero and Claudio bumped into each other, I couldn’t tell if it was deliberate on either part or just an accident.

This time I noticed that when the women came on before the party scene, singing their rowdy song and dressed up in the soldier’s clothes, Hero and Margaret were smoking and drinking. When Leonato arrived, they hastily passed their cigarette and drink to Verges, who stood there looking guilty while the ‘princess’ and her maid looked as innocent as new born babes. As with Desdemona, this father’s ‘jewel’ is quite capable of deceit when she cares to use it. Beatrice held on to her drink, presumably not a problem for her. After the prince proposed to Beatrice, she reacted with laughter and Leonato gestured to warn her that the prince had been serious and she’d hurt his feelings, hence her abrupt change of tack and the apologies for her behaviour.

The biggest change was in the first gulling scene. After Benedick sent the maidservant for his book, the speech about his ideal woman was much better this time, getting smallish laughs several times on the way through. Then after the Prince, Claudio and Leonato started their trickery, Benedick avoided the roof and instead came down to the ground level after climbing the tree; he was behind the house façade, but we could see him through the open doors. He took a blanket off Dogberry (loud sounds of arguing just before this) and wrapped it round himself, then came on stage for the final section of the gulling pretending to be a servant. He also had a broom and used it to sweep up some fallen leaves rather ineffectively. The servant girl was less distracting in this bit – she did less of a performance – but the acting she did do helped to cover Benedick’s presence and allowed the others to appear to ignore him more easily. They treated him as a servant, so he ended up cleaning Claudio’s shoes and then the prince’s, planting himself in turn on the stools in each front corner. When Don Pedro insulted Benedick, he spat on the prince’s shoe, all in order to clean it of course. This worked a lot better than the previous version.

When Beatrice came to call Benedick in to dinner, Benedick was on the swing, grinning happily and swinging so much that she broke off the line “against my will” and just looked at him, amazed. After a few moments (to give us time to finish laughing) she regained her composure and carried on. And for Beatrice’s gulling, Hero stayed in front of the window on the balcony this time for the early part of the conversation with Verges and so the dialogue was much clearer.  Otherwise it was the same.

When the watch were doing their duty outside Leonato’s house, they had removed the umbrella that got in my way the first time, and Borachio had been to the loo before he came on stage so no pissing all over the constable (thank goodness). There was still thunder, but they just pretended it was raining. This time I noticed that Don John came on to the balcony and saw the watch apprehending Borachio and Conrade. This certainly explained his flight after the wedding, though the man has some balls to risk staying that long – his men might have given him up before the ceremony.

Speaking of which, the wedding scene had a few more changes. Leonato was at ground level from the start of this scene, bustling the servants along and greeting the guests who arrived from the audience. This made the dialogue with Dogberry and Verges, still holding up the two pairs of trousers, much easier to follow. Leonato’s interpolated “no thanks” after Claudio offered Hero back was not appreciated by Madhav, who felt that it wasn’t necessary to add to the text in this way, and I agree with him. Overall though, the denouncement of Hero was just as shocking this time, and I do feel that the use of the microphone made it worse for Hero, as it was clear there were a large number of people witnessing this event.

Benedick and Beatrice were very strong in the “kill Claudio” scene, and I could see how their relationship and the challenge to Claudio are woven skilfully together, the one leading to the other and back again. Paul’s hand was better tonight, so he was able to grab Beatrice by the arms as planned.

I was aware when the watch did their interrogation tonight that the down side of having the household servants play these characters as well is that they already know what’s happened in the wedding scene, so it’s hard for them to react appropriately as the story comes out. The wedding platform was partly removed during this inquisition of the prisoners, and Borachio and Conrade were actually placed on the last section of it and wheeled off, waving to the crowd. This speeded up the scene change a lot which was helpful. This time, the look of sadness on Verges’ face as she held together the red ribbons, waiting for them to be lowered, showed us the grief, the loss of what should have been. The ribbons were also whisked off stage much sooner leaving Leonato and Antonio alone on stage for more of their dialogue in the following scene. I still found Leonato’s delivery too slow tonight, especially during this scene and the wedding scene, but overall the pace was better.

When the prince and Claudio turned up, they reacted much more strongly to Leonato’s criticisms, and from their reactions I was aware tonight that this was the first they had heard of Hero’s death – Benedick was obviously a bit slow to get the news to them. The rest of the play was as I remembered it, though with a smaller audience the atmosphere wasn’t quite as lively as last time. The side stalls were relatively empty during the first half, but they filled up a bit for the second, more than compensating for the few gaps which had appeared.

Just a couple of other points: I forgot to mention in previous notes that the Prince looked amazingly like Chuck’s friend Morgan (from the TV series Chuck) which was a momentary distraction for me. Also I noticed tonight that Don John accosted the servant girl in an unpleasant way in an early scene, and Verges protected her. The singer’s treatment of the girl later wasn’t pleasant either, given that he’d invited her to join in the dancing, but when she became over-enthusiastic he grabbed her roughly to make her stop.

This has become an amazingly good production, and the cast are clearly enjoying themselves now that the director has (hopefully!) stopped tinkering with it. I gather that the atmosphere in rehearsals wasn’t particularly comfortable; the director likes to push his actors well beyond any comfort zones, and isn’t as open to discussion as we understood from his talk earlier in the run.

The problem of Asian actors not being cast as widely as black actors now are, still rumbles on, and I’m in two minds about this sort of all-Asian production. On the one hand, it’s absolutely valid to show how Shakespeare’s plays work in all sorts of cultures; after all it’s why he’s so admired and performed all over the world. And given that, it would be awkward to people the world of the performance with non-Asian actors, as that would raise other issues such as the colonial ones which the director here has chosen to avoid. But when these productions are staged, I can’t help feeling that they blur the statistics and make it seem as if there are more employment opportunities for Asian actors than is the case. I don’t know what the answer to this conundrum is, but I look forward to seeing another Asian Hamlet or perhaps a first Asian Henry V within a mixed cast, not as a box-ticking exercise but as a valid recognition of this pool of talent.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Much Ado About Nothing – August 2012

9/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Iqbal Khan

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Monday 20th August 2012

There’s been a huge improvement in this production since we saw it last. The timing of the scene changes is quicker, and the whole cast is working very well together. I don’t know if the accents had been modified or whether we were more used to them, but the dialogue was clearer, and although I only noticed a few specific cuts, the running time was down to three hours (from three and a half!). Our angle tonight was different too, so I saw some things I hadn’t noticed before, while losing one or two other things. There’s a truly magic feel to the performance, and with a packed audience responding warmly to the action it was a tremendous evening.

No real changes to report for the pre-show business or the early scenes, although I spotted that Hero deliberately managed to bump into Claudio before she left with the rest of the household. Don John was also present when Don Pedro returned to Benedick and Claudio. He stayed skulking by the front steps; after Benedick left, he received a pointed look from his brother and reluctantly went through the doors at the back, closing them with sarcastic precision. Dogberry and Borachio came on stage to remove the fan which had been working throughout the opening scene, and took it to the back of the stage before finally removing it altogether. Dogberry didn’t have long to tell Antonio what he’d heard before Antonio reported it to Leonato, dismissing Dogberry at the same time.

After Don John’s scene, Beatrice, Hero, Ursula and Margaret came through the audience and onto the stage at the front, singing and wearing the soldier’s jackets. Leonato and Antonio came through the doors to meet them, and after some chat they were dressed up in the scarves, ready for the party. The conversations at the party were easier to see from this angle, although the continuing music made them harder to hear. The prince and Hero appeared on the balcony during the dance, celebrating, while Claudio came across more clearly as immature tonight; his petulance at what he thought the prince had done – wooing Hero for himself instead of Claudio – was a childish reaction, and there was every possibility that he would grow out of such tantrums in time.

We had learned from the director that kissing in front of one’s elders is still frowned upon in India, so when Beatrice told Hero to stop Claudio’s “mouth with a kiss”, Leonato intervened and Hero and Claudio stayed apart. Again Don John’s scene had no changes to report, and then Benedick arrived on stage for the first gulling scene. His delivery of the speech “I do much wonder that one man….” was a bit better than before, but still lacked the detail of previous productions, and only got a laugh at the very end. Balthazar sang as before, and the servant who was bringing Benedick his book was persuaded to join in the dancing. She was much too vigorous, and Claudio backed off when she started hitting him with her scarf. Benedick was up on the roof again tonight, but he was visible (just) and the maid’s antics helped the scene along, as Benedick doesn’t actually have any lines for a fair chunk of it. At the end of the scene, when Benedick was assessing the ‘revelations’ he’d just heard, he kept bending down to put one shoe on, then leaving it to speak another line. He managed to get them both on before Beatrice came to call him in to dinner.

The gulling of Beatrice was done as before, with Hero’s lines still a bit muffled by the speaker on the mobile. Verges spotted Beatrice, who had slid round to sit beside her, after the line “Yet tell her of it: hear what she will say”, and so her “O! do not do your cousin such a wrong” was said with Beatrice right beside her. Beatrice put her finger to her lips to tell Verges to be quiet at “His excellence did earn it, ere he had it”, which explained Verges’ sudden change of subject.

Benedick was brought on to the stage for the next scene by Dogberry, who seemed to be the very barber talked of a short while later. The prince made much of not recognising Benedick, and his appearance was very different. The interval was taken after Don John’s assertion of Hero’s disloyalty, which meant the wedding platform could be set up during the interval, saving a good deal of time.

The second half still started with Beatrice singing “Sigh no more” on the balcony, with Dogberry on guard down below. This was followed by the first part of the watch scene, up to Dogberry’s final exit. Then came the first part of the wedding preparations, up to the conclusion of Margaret’s jest about “the heavier for a husband”. Then Borachio and Conrad had their conversation and were arrested by the watch, after which Beatrice turned up and completed the scene with Hero and Margaret. Dogberry and Verges showed the two pairs of trousers to Leonato as before, and then we had the wedding scene.

I wasn’t aware of any changes to this, but our view of the action was much better. The guests were brought up from the audience as before, and Beatrice and Benedick were startled to find themselves giving garlands to each other. We clapped along to the music as everyone arrived and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. The microphone was still being used, and the way it was being passed around, or rather grabbed by various people, was very funny. The Panditji moved over to the corner of the stage at “Stand thee by,” with one of the servants bringing over the stool that proved so awkward last time. I’m not sure if Benedick sat down on it tonight, so the people sitting over that way may have suffered less than we did.

The rest of the scene was as before, just clearer, and the scene between Beatrice and Benedick was just as strong. The examination of Borachio and Conrade was followed by the clearing of the wedding platform and the cloth streamers, which worked better tonight although it was still slow. Leonato and Antonio managed their lines without the servants’ activities being so distracting, and I’m sure they got the stage cleared a line or two earlier this time.

Antonio took off one of his shoes and used it to attack Claudio, in lieu of a proper challenge. Claudio threw the shoe on the ground, and when Antonio bent to pick it up he reacted to a twinge in his back – we older folk knew just how he felt, but we all laughed. Benedick was very stern with both the prince and Claudio, and refused to be drawn into their banter, while Borachio’s confession shocked the pair of them deeply. They cut Claudio’s lines “Rightly reasoned, and in his own division….”, and I noticed this time that Antonio nodded his head slightly when Leonato mentioned his ‘niece’. They also cut Margaret and Benedick’s lines “who I think has legs.” “And therefore will come” which I remember hearing last time. No wonder half an hour has vanished.

To set up the temple scene, the two side blocks of the building slid back and were pushed off to either side; hence the disappearance of the musicians. They stayed in the same place, but the place itself moved back stage. I spotted Hero on the stairs this time, and when it came to finding Beatrice, Benedick was absolutely frantic, running here and there, finally asking which she was. Beatrice then tried to run off, but was prevented by a crowd of people and returned to face it out. The line “Peace! I will stop your mouths” was given back to Leonato, from whom a succession of editors had stolen it, and the shock of this forced kiss startled the pair at first. Then, with most of the others off stage, they decided to have another go, and spent quite some time in a passionate snog. After the messenger had brought the news of Don John’s capture, and Benedick had promised to sort him out tomorrow, the play ended with the servant girl finally handing Benedick the book he’d asked for several acts ago. It was funny, and a good way to end the drama part of the evening, but of course there was the dance to enjoy before we left. And enjoy it we did.

Some final points: I saw that Hero embraced her father before heading off for her marriage, so all was well there too, and in one of the later scenes Claudio referred to Benedick as “Bendy-dick” – Steve reckoned he heard this variation earlier as well. I did have a few sniffles this evening – emotions rather than a cold – but there was definitely more laughter than tears which is as it should be.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Much Ado About Nothing – July 2012

7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Iqbal Khan

Venue: Courtyard

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

Much Ado About Nothing – July 2011

7/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Josie Rourke

Venue: Wyndhams Theatre

Date: Monday 11th July 2011

I was a bit disappointed with tonight’s experience, not so much due to the production as the audience. With so many David and Catherine fans, the laughter came all too easily, and while some of it was very well deserved, there were times when it swamped the dialogue, times when it was strangely absent, and times when it came for no apparent reason at all. This was not your regular Shakespeare audience, and while I’m glad this run has been so successful, and hope that it will turn one or two youngsters on to Shakespeare’s work, I found that the uncritical adulation spoiled my enjoyment a bit.

The set was excellent, with four big pillars on a revolve surrounded by slatted panels and doorways suggesting the warm Mediterranean location perfectly. The costumes were also excellent – modern dress, with military costumes and formal suits rubbing shoulders with scruffy dungarees and T-shirts. Benedict’s costume for the masked ball looked like a cross between Lily Savage and Olivia Newton John in the final scene of Grease, Hero’s wedding dress echoed Diana’s, and Dogberry wore military fatigues with the word ‘officer’ across his chest.

The parts that didn’t work so well for me included the second part of the eavesdropping scene and some of the ruined wedding scene. The eavesdropping scene was staged with a couple of decorators bringing their trolley on stage and touching up the paintwork on a door and then one of the pillars. This allowed Benedict to get white paint on one hand, which then ended up on his face, clothes, etc. All this was very funny, but the trouble is there’s another round of eavesdropping to go, and Beatrice not only has to do something different, it really has to top Benedict’s efforts or the energy will flag. Tonight, Beatrice’s comic business involved covering herself with the painters’ tarpaulin, then groping her way towards the back of the stage where she could be attached to a hook and lifted up. All well and good, and very funny to start with, but then the laughter just drowned out the dialogue and I switched off very quickly. I’ve seen this done better.

The wedding scene started very well, with a nice change of pace into the darker phase of the play. Benedict’s reactions were particularly good here, making it clear that even this joker recognises the enormity of the Prince and Duke’s accusation. Then when Beatrice and Benedict are left alone, the humour of their mutual admissions of love were funny, but the excessive audience reactions jarred with the previous mood, and when Beatrice tells Benedict that she wants him to kill Claudio, this was also greeted with laughter, which is so wrong and certainly not how it was played. Even so, I was very moved by this scene, not as far as needing a hanky, but my eyes were definitely wet. This sort of insensitive response detracts from the performance for me, although not completely, thank goodness.

Other negatives in the staging included the strange bit after Claudio has read the poem over Hero’s grave. He has a portable CD player and some booze with him for his all-night vigil, and by dint of playing loud music, swigging the booze and throwing himself around a lot, I deduced we were to understand that he was truly sorry for what he’d done. In case we hadn’t taken the hint, he even took out a gun, and was about to shoot himself when Hero walked in, dressed in black. He’s so amazed by her appearance that he collapses on the floor, where the Prince finds him the next morning. Neither Steve nor I could figure this one out. Was it Hero herself stopping him, in which case how did she get there at just the right moment, or was it a vision he was having, in which case why was she in a completely different outfit? I’m all for ambiguity, but this was just vague.

I was also suspicious of the semi-corpsing when Beatrice came to call Benedict in to dinner. We’ve seen this sort of rehearsed improv before, and it didn’t ring completely true for me, while Steve was out and sure it was a fake. I noticed tonight that Catherine Tate reappeared in the wings briefly after her final departure – no idea why.

The other main problem I had with the performance was Catherine Tate’s weak delivery. She started off well, but in any prolonged speech she tended to lose energy and volume. This wouldn’t have been a problem in a more average production, but with such high-powered performers around her it was very noticeable. I also found Don John and Borachio hard to follow, Don John because of his rather jerky delivery, and Borachio because I couldn’t tune in to the accent he was using. Choosing to replace Leonato’s brother with his wife was an interesting move – trying to balance up the sexes perhaps? – but her part was seriously underwritten as a result, with nothing to say in the wedding scene, and no threat to fight the Prince either. Her delivery was even weaker than Catherine Tate’s, so perhaps it was a blessing she had so few lines.

So what did I enjoy about the play? Well, the other performances were excellent, and even Dogberry came out funnier than usual. John Ramm still struggled with that first scene – when no-one is pointing out the errors it can fall a little flat – but his later appearances went down well, especially his final leave-taking of Leonato. He had a thing with his sidekick, Verges, where they put their fists together and said ‘boom’. He tried to go through the motions of this with Leonato as well, but realised it wasn’t going to be reciprocated, or appreciated. His insistence on being ‘written down an ass’ went down very well with this crowd, which made up for them missing some of the other gems.

David Tennant was, as expected, excellent, with great comic timing and clear delivery of the lines. I noticed he was more static than in his RSC roles, but that’s probably the proscenium arch for you. He did have to mug it up a bit for this audience, but he does that so well, who cares? Both Adam James as the Prince and Tom Bateman as Claudio were very good, and I was impressed with what I could hear of Sarah Macrae as Hero – her part suffered the worst from the excessive laughter. I enjoyed Jonathan Coy’s excellent Leonato, and although I couldn’t always make out Don John’s dialogue, I appreciated Elliot Levey’s portrayal of the part. It reminded me of Richard Nixon, all stiff and formal, and with inappropriate attempts to be one of the boys, including offering a cigarette to the young lad.

The pre-wedding stag and hen nights were a very good piece of staging, and allowed ‘Hero’s’ infidelity to be staged as a shag against the wall in a dark space with Margaret wearing Hero’s bridal veil. It also allowed Don John to craftily get both his brother and Claudio well drunk before showing them the ‘proof’.

When the Prince proposed to Beatrice, he was in earnest, and her embarrassment when she realises this was evident. He’s clearly hurt by her rejection, and Leonato’s request for her to ‘look to those things I told you of’ is solely an excuse to get her out of there, for which she’s very grateful.

The young boy was excellent, too – don’t know which one it was tonight, their pictures in the program are too similar. He brought the book back just at the wrong time, and finally Benedict threw it off the stage to get rid of it and him. Later, when Benedict is attempting to compose a love-song to Beatrice using an electronic keyboard, he pushes a button which starts the machine playing some music, and can’t get it to stop. Needless to say, when the young lad walks across the back of the stage, he sees that Benedict’s in trouble, and with the resigned air of the technically savvy youth, walks over, pushes the right button, and leaves. Beautifully done. Benedict then starts checking out some of the other options, before giving up entirely. I think this scene was put before his request to Margaret to fetch Beatrice, but I can’t be sure.

During the wedding scene, the reactions from Don John and Margaret were easy to miss, but well worth catching. Don John was smirking a bit when Hero was accused, while Margaret looked shocked, then worried, then guilty, and her mother hustled her out of the church quickly at the end.

Overall, it was a lively and fairly straightforward interpretation of the play, with lots of humour and affection between the characters, and despite the audience reactions, I enjoyed it very much.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Much Ado About Nothing – January 2008

9/10

By; William Shakespeare

Directed by: Nicholas Hytner

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Wednesday 30th January 2008

We’d seen such a great Much Ado last summer in the Swan, part of the Complete Works, that I was a bit worried that we wouldn’t appreciate this one fully. I didn’t have too much to worry about, though. While it wasn’t as lively as the RSC production, this performance had some of the best interpretations of the lines I’ve heard, and seen. Some of the business was off the text, but still incredibly funny, and the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick was detailed and moving, as well as bringing out the humour brilliantly.

The set used the revolving box from The Alchemist (Oct 2006), with wooden slatted walls on two sides, and pergolas along them. There were flats with upper windows at various angles behind the box. Furniture was brought on as needed, and with the revolve, the next scene could be set up without distracting us from the current scene – very effective. During the marvellous overhearing scenes, there was a pond in the main area, and it’s put to good use – both Beatrice and Benedick fall in it. Although this set up allowed for greater flow between the scenes, I did feel the pace was a bit slow at times.

The costumes were a mixture, part Jacobethan, part Olde Worlde, as far as I could tell; let’s face it, I’m not an expert in these matters, and that’s probably why I don’t get put off productions that have made unusual costuming decisions. Anyway, I liked them. So there.

There were several of the female cast on stage at the start, nibbling away at fruit and the like, and chatting. Leonato arrives with Beatrice, and joins them. I do like this kind of opening –we have to pay attention for longer to see what’s going to happen. Unfortunately, they work best if the audience cooperates, and this time we had a chatty couple behind who weren’t going to give up their talking time just to allow us all to drink in the atmosphere being so carefully set up for us. (B*$^&@#>.)

Along comes the messenger, giving Leonato a letter, and so out of breath he has to sit down for a bit. They get him some food and water to wash in, etc. Beatrice is sprawled on a chair at the end of the table, and joins in with her bitchy questions from there. It’s a good start, giving us the background, the information that Hero fancies Claudio, and the beginning of a understanding of the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick.

When Don Pedro does arrive, attended by various nobles, the bows and curtseys are quite formal, indicating that Don Pedro, a prince of Arragon, is pretty senior in this society, and not to be trifled with. He, on the other hand, has no concerns about trifling with other people. I was very aware in this production that he seems to be determined to get involved in everyone else’s life, and doesn’t seem to have much of a life of his own. The reactions from Claudio later on, when Don Pedro is spelling out how he’ll woo Hero on Claudio’s behalf, make it quite clear that Claudio isn’t keen on the idea, but doesn’t know how to get this point across to the prince. Likewise, when Beatrice has made it clear that she’s been romantically involved with Benedick before, and it didn’t end happily, the prince suddenly announces he’s going to play a trick on both Beatrice and Benedick to get each to fall in love with other, and all for sport! What a great laugh they’ll all have. It’s a really unpleasant side to the prince’s character, and I’ve never seen it brought out so much before (or I just never spotted it before). Admittedly, Beatrice has just made a faux pas – not only does she reject Don Pedro’s suggestion that she and he could become an item, she possibly triggers the offer by getting a bit frisky, and slapping the prince on the bum! It’s possible he feels hurt (emotionally, that is) and wants some revenge, but I didn’t get that from this performance. On the whole, it came across as the prince just being incredibly insensitive to the feelings of those around him, and this may partially explain why Don John, his brother, doesn’t like him.

Back with the prince’s first entrance (I hope you’ve got a cup of tea, this may take some time), Benedick and Beatrice are soon sniping at each other, while the others drift off towards the back of the stage. That was one of the things I liked about this staging – the set design made it easy for characters to drift in and out of the main playing area, whichever one was facing us at the time, and to wend their way around as the set rotated, making this much less static, and much more interesting. I got the impression that Benedick is fending Beatrice off – he’s had enough of her rough tongue, and wants to avoid her as much as possible. Yet, when he’s trying to talk Claudio out of being in love with Hero, he readily refers to Beatrice in superlative terms. She “exceeds her [Hero] as much in beauty as the first of May doth the last of December”. Pretty clear what he thinks of Beatrice as a woman, then. And this lays the groundwork nicely for the declaration of love in the church.

After the prince’s arrival, Benedick is quick to mention that he’s bursting to tell him everything – blabber mouth. I loved the delivery of these lines. Simon Russell Beale has such an ability to speak Shakespearean lines as though they made sense, which means they often do, and this was no exception. Along with the other members of the cast, I must add, who all contributed to this intelligent and intelligible production.

This was one of those occasions when the stage revolved to allow the characters to move into another part of the premises. As the men are talking, well, actually, as Benedick is railing against marriage with short contributions from the other two, they move round into the prince’s bedchamber, so he can change his shirt. While he does this, and after Benedick has left, the prince and Claudio discuss Hero, and the prince comes up with his plan to do the wooing for Claudio. Claudio keeps trying to get some words out to express his concern about this, but doesn’t quite manage to say anything. Off they go, and the effect of their conversation will be picked up by others shortly.

Leonato has a short conversation with his brother, Antonio, who informs him that the prince is in love with Hero, and intends to woo her at the dance. It’s exciting news, but this time Leonato restrains himself, and decides to wait and see what happens. He’ll warn Hero though, just in case. Next we see Don John, the sulky one, brooding intently round the back of the set. Conrad, one of his servants, tries to advise him to be more sociable, as he’s only recently been reconciled to his brother, but Don John is determined to be himself, and sulk as much as he wants to. This makes him sound like a stubborn teenager, but Andrew Woodall played him with some gravitas, making me wonder if he was just suffering from depression. Borachio arrives, with the news about the wooing, and this time, it’s the correct version, that the prince intends to woo Hero on behalf of Claudio. The prospect of throwing a very large spanner in the works cheers up Don John enormously – he almost smiled – and off they go to cause mischief. It’s always nice to know where you stand with the villains.

The dance scene begins with the ladies, Leonato and Antonio sitting in the seats at the side of the floor; the other men haven’t yet arrived. Beatrice’s comments on the unsuitability of any man to be her husband are entertaining enough, and her comments about men with no beards are funnier because her uncle, Antonio, is clean-shaven. The bickering continues between different couples as the dancing gets underway, and eventually the set rotates us round to where Beatrice had just been told something about herself by a masked man. Who can it be? The nose of his mask is extraordinarily long, yet the form seems familiar. Zounds, it’s Benedick, but did Beatrice spot him? I should think so, despite her obvious delight in knocking back the wine. Benedick comes off second best, again, and his reactions are clear, despite the disguise.

Now Don John does his evil work with Claudio, deliberately mistaking him for Benedick. Frankly, this is absurd, given their respective shapes, but we mustn’t let that get in the way of an enjoyable bit of theatre. And in any case, Claudio’s sulk doesn’t last long, as eventually Don Pedro tells him that Hero is won. Before that, we and the prince get to hear Benedick ranting at great length about how terrible Beatrice is. Honestly, to listen to him go on and on and on, anyone would think he’s besotted by her. Even though he asks the prince to send him away on some impossible mission as soon as she reappears with her relatives. Mind you, he does dash off almost immediately after that, so he’s clearly still upset at his verbal pasting from Beatrice.

She, on the other hand, has brought Claudio along to be given the good news about Hero, and rightly divines what’s upsetting him. It’s noticeable how little Claudio has to say at this point – everyone on stage notices, never mind the audience. With the RSC production last year I was reminded that actually Hero and Claudio have probably not spoken at all; here it was just a reflection of Claudio’s youth and inexperience. He reminded me of Romeo – all passion and flowery romantic words, but no real understanding of relationships, nor any real trust in Hero, as it turns out. It’s often a concern as to why she’s willing to take him back after his treatment of her, but this production handles that very well. Later. (It’s at this time that Beatrice lets her hand stray too far, and ends up having to deflect the proposal from Don Pedro.)

His first attempt at upsetting everyone having lost its momentum, Don John now picks up Borachio’s offer to delude the prince and Claudio and derail the marriage altogether. It’s not altogether clear why Borachio is doing this. I assume it’s because he supports Don John in mischief. The RSC had Borachio being the only man who actually woos Hero, and who wanted to stop this marriage to give himself a chance again, but here it’s not specified. I also realised for the first time that we never actually see this discovery scene. It’s so well described that I feel I must have seen it, yet it’s only in the words. This makes me realise how important some of these apparently trivial scenes can be.

Now for the water feature. The sunken pool on the terrace comes into its own. Benedick sends one of the household maids to fetch his book, rather than a boy. He then has one of the best soliloquies in Shakespeare – I love the way he disdains marriage, then spends ages spelling out his ideal woman. When the prince, Claudio and Leonato arrive, the slatted walls serve for cover, and Benedick nips behind one, taking his chair with him. At one point, the folding chair decides to fold up, and we have one of those lovely moments when the people on stage have to ignore an obvious giveaway, just so they can carry on with their entrapment. They include the music in this production, and it’s quite enjoyable, though I’ve never figured out why Balthazar is going on about what a bad singer he is. Anyway, it’s pleasant enough, and then the three conspirators get down to business.

This is one of the best scenes in Shakespeare’s comedies, and these actors got full measure out of it. Leonato has tremendous difficulty remembering what to say, unlike the two soldiers, who’re obviously used to practical jokes. Benedick’s reactions are marvellously funny; in fact it’s difficult to know which way to look during this scene. They helped out by having Benedick move around a lot, eventually lurking behind the chair he’d draped his jacket over at the start. I did like they way he sidled up to the thin pillar of the pergola and tried to hide behind it – Wile E. Coyote might have managed it, but cuddly Simon…..

They staged this scene so that the prince and his cohorts wend their way to the back of the stage, only to return for their final lines. Benedick, meanwhile, has come onto the main part of the stage, and begins his lines (I think). When they return, he’s trapped, and ends up diving into the pool to hide – massive splash. This was funny enough, but then, after a long pause, while the others are busy trying not to crack up completely, the top of Benedick’s head appears over the side of the pool. The expression in Simon Russell Beale’s eyes was hilarious. And the idea that the others couldn’t see him was farcical (good farcical, that is). After the others leave, Benedick stays in the pool for a bit, thinking through what he’s just heard, and leaning on the side of the pool as if he were at a spa. When Beatrice comes on to call him in for dinner, he’s out of the pool, and stands there, dripping wet. After her tart summons is over, there’s the wonderful line “‘Against my will I am sent to bid you come in to dinner ,’ there’s a double meaning in that.” Benedick’s euphoria as he grasps this fictitious straw of hope is side-splitting.

And, just so we don’t get bored, the next eavesdropping scene follows on immediately. Will knew when to report a scene, and when to show us it in full. This time it’s Hero and Ursula setting the trap, and sending Margaret off to lure Beatrice into it. This time, the set has been on the turn, and so Beatrice is able to hide better than Benedick. Again, she reacts well to the two women’s chat, even putting her hands through the slats to try and strangle Ursula after some pointed comment. She also thinks about hiding behind a pergola pole at one point, but finds a better opportunity to overhear them. One of the maids is mopping up after the last big splash, and Beatrice borrows her hat, mop and bucket. In their talk, Hero and Ursula have lost sight of Beatrice, and look around for her, eventually spotting the lady herself, despite the amazing disguise. Ursula signals to the “maid” to carry on cleaning up, and when she accidentally knocks her bucket into the pool, indicates she should get it out. This Beatrice attempts to do without giving herself away, and the inevitable happens – another splash! This was even funnier, though we knew it was coming. Hero and Ursula are soon off the stage, and Beatrice heaves herself out pretty quickly – these dresses soak up a lot of water – and heads off to dry herself.

By now, Benedick has not only dried himself, he’s had a shave as well, and the prince, Claudio and Leonato discover him round the other side of the stage. He tries to hide his face, but they soon discover what’s going on and let rip with their jests. Benedick manages to get away with Leonato to discuss a matter of some importance, leaving the coast clear for Don John to plant more evil seeds in men’s minds. And now the interval.

The second half opened with Dogberry and the watch. Dogberry has always been a problem for me. His mangling of the language has rarely come across well, and there’s often a problem with the reactions of the watch members. If they don’t spot that Dogberry’s talking rubbish, it reduces the humour for me. It works much better when Dogberry’s talking to the gentry, although then there’s a risk of patronising attitudes spoiling the fun. All in all, he’s one of the trickier clowns. Here we have Mark Addy taking him on, and he did a respectable job with it. Verges, played by Trevor Peacock, plays an old doddery man, who lines up behind Dogberry whenever they have to bow, leading to an unfortunate alignment of head and bum. Not the worst watch I’ve seen, by any means, and they catch the villains Conrad and Borachio well enough.

Margaret is helping Hero dress for her wedding, and when Beatrice comes on with a stinker of a cold, Margaret ends up being the lively one. Beatrice evidently didn’t get dry quick enough after her swim. Dogberry turns up just as Leonato is putting the finishing touches to his outfit, and so gets sent off to do the interrogation himself. His lines were funny, and his taking of the wine, including a bottle or two for later, was entertaining.

The church scene is a pivotal one, and this staging brought out the ups and downs very well. First, there’s the lovely entrance of the bride, and the groom’s party. It’s all very solemn and full of expectation. Then there’s the shocking accusations against Hero, and everything’s thrown into confusion. Leonato is enraged against his daughter (silly old fool, too keen on the prince, that’s his problem), Hero is amazed, Beatrice is appalled, the prince’s company, except Benedick, are cold, and the friar keeps his cool remarkably well. There are a number of meddling friars in Shakespeare’s works – this one gets away with it. After the prince’s departure, and after Leonato has been calmed down (no easy task), there’s a quieter phase when Beatrice and Benedick get a chance to talk. I was very aware that there’s no time to reflect on the situation during the manic part of the scene, and it’s lovely to have this section when we can really feel the emotions that have been stirred up. I usually relate best to Beatrice’s grief and anger, probably because they’re the main emotions on show, and I feel it’s important to register what a huge disruption this event has caused to everyone. Benedick manages to express his love for Beatrice now she’s no longer sniping at him, and he sounded a bit surprised at saying it, or perhaps he was just surprised how easily it popped out. For all the context and content, it’s lovely to see the two of them talking as human to human, and learning to work together.

Now Dogberry confronts the villains, and confounds them with his incisive wit, his sharp interrogation techniques…. You’re not believing this, are you? OK, it’s the usual scene, with Dogberry most insistent he be “writ down an ass”. His indignation was lovely to see.

Next Leonato and his brother meet up with the prince and Claudio, and nearly come to blows. Antonio even heads off to fetch his massive broadsword, bigger than himself, and waves it around dangerously. The danger is more that he’ll accidentally hit something than that he’ll actually fight with it, and it was nicely humorous. They soon get it off him, and then Benedick arrives with the serious challenge. The change in his manner is noticeable. He delivers the challenge sincerely, and with enough temper to suggest he really does know what he’s doing with a sword. Just when the prince and Claudio thought things couldn’t get any worse, Dogberry and his watch arrive with the prisoners, and all is revealed. Leonato also turns up, with his brother, and after telling Claudio what he has to do to untarnish Hero’s memory (they think she’s died), suggests that Claudio marry his brother’s daughter instead, “almost the copy of my child that’s dead”. Pity he didn’t warn his brother about this – he nearly spoils the plan by his reactions.

As they all leave, and the set rotates, we see Margaret has been listening in, at least to the last part of this scene, and so realises that Borachio has been arrested, and that she’s probably played a part in getting Hero falsely accused. She’s quick to recover her wits, though, as Benedick asks her to fetch Beatrice to him. He ruminates about love, letting us know he’s not very good at poetry, and then when Beatrice comes they have one of their usual sparring matches, though without the bitterness that was present before.

For the tomb scene, Claudio actually lies on the tomb (hints of necrophilia there, I feel), and as he’s singing his hymn, we see Hero being brought on to watch by her father, from behind the partition. She takes a good long look at Claudio, and then nods to her father, indicating she’s willing to marry him. This was a good piece of staging, as it lets us see that she’s made her own choice, very important after what’s happened.

For the final scene, the ladies all enter with veils, and Claudio resigns himself to marrying some young woman, then has all the joy of finding Hero returned (yes, of course I cried). When Benedick asks the friar to add him and Beatrice to the wedding plans, he puts his hands over his face for a moment before coming out with the dreaded words “honourable marriage”. The poems turn up, and she grabs hers and eats it before he can read it, then reads his, giving a really evil cackle at his pathetic attempts at rhyme. It’s a lovely happy ending, and we applauded for a long time. For all its problems, this is a hugely enjoyable play, and this was one of the best productions I’ve seen of it.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Much Ado About Nothing – September 2006

Experience: 10/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Marianne Elliot

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Friday 8th September 2006

For the first half, I felt this was the best ever production of anything I’d ever seen, anywhere. I was going to revise my star ratings to give this eleven! Then the second half opened with Dogberry, and the soufflé collapsed. To be fair, this was one of the better Dogberry’s I’ve seen, so it didn’t collapse far, and I would still recommend everybody on the planet to see this production at least sixteen times before they die.

To start with, all the dialogue was delivered so clearly, and with such good understanding of what was being said, that I understood the play far better than I ever have before, and I got all of the jokes, which is no mean feat. The setting worked brilliantly. Pre-Castro Cuba, with lots of heat, bars and cigars, the air was steamy long before the lovers got going. We were entertained to some Latin-American music from the band before the start, and there was plenty more during the show as well.

I can’t possibly note up everything that happened, so here’s a jumble of thoughts and memories. Benedick as a moving pot plant – totally over the top and brilliantly done. We laughed so much at this, that the following eavesdropping scene, with Beatrice, felt a bit flatter, but Beatrice managed to go one better than Benedick and actually creep right up to the bench that Ursula was sitting on. Ursula even put her hand, accidentally, on Beatrice’s, and had to pretend not to notice. Before that, we had a slightly predictable joke when Beatrice moved next to the Vespa parked on stage, and naturally set off the horn. Little bit obvious, but still enjoyable. My favourite part was at the beginning of that scene, when Beatrice enters from the side, and runs along the front of row A to hide at the back, hopefully not treading on anyone’s toes.

Benedick winking at the Duke to get him to insist on Benedick revealing all about Claudio. Borachio’s interest in Hero, causing his jealousy and hence the assistance he gives to Don John. Borachio actually spends time with Hero, which we don’t see Claudio do till after the Duke’s done the deal.

The tempo eases down in the second half, partly because Dogberry is played at a slow pace, and partly because the story gets a lot darker. I realised that what brings Beatrice and Benedick together in this section is the seriousness of what happens to the people they care about – they’re not able to joke about this stuff, and so they’re able to express their truer feelings about each other as well. Once the problems are resolved, they’re back to sniping at each other again, but too late to deny their feelings.

The crunchy floor isn’t particularly noisy in this production – must be the soles of their shoes. Still sticks to everything, though.

Dogberry was OK, making him better than most I’ve seen. I even found some of his jokes funny. Verges we were already familiar with from a couple of seasons at Chichester, and I enjoyed what there was of the part. The watch were good, hiding out amongst the audience to overhear Borachio and Conrad, but on the whole I preferred the YPS watch – they made much more of them, although it was a shorter version.

The second half was more moving. I always feel for Hero in her suffering after the false accusation. This time, Margaret, realising what she’s been involved in, runs from the church, really upset. They made a lot of some pearls which Claudio gives Hero, and to my mind, Hero was just a bit too interested in them rather than the man. Not sure this is going to be a happy marriage for Claudio (but then, does he deserve one?)

Masks for the first ball – the Prince has a lion mask, Benedick a monkey, and Claudio a clown, all very appropriate.

One quibble about the scene with Benedick in his floral shirt – it’s clear he’s changed, and shaved his beard, so perhaps the Prince could have played it up as a bit more of a joke – there’s no ‘discovery’ of the changes, so no need to play it straight.

Wonderful use of a megaphone to bid Benedick “come in to supper”, especially as Beatrice is standing about a foot in front of him at the time. His reaction to this summons was wonderful too – his conviction that there’s a double meaning in her words was beautifully insane and another one of the many funny moments in this production.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me