Going into Much Ado About Nothing, my expectations were modest. No disrespect to the play — in fact, Much Ado is one of my perennial favourites in the Bard’s extensive (and yet-to-be-exhausted) body of work. But, having studied, viewed and performed this play more than any other in the canon, I was skeptical about what this production could show me that I wouldn’t have already seen before. Simon Dormandy’s production, I am pleased to say, goes to show that truly timeless plays earn their reputation by providing a fertile ground from which new thematic wonders and revelations can continue to be harvested several hundred years after having been written.
Synthesising the Elizabethan style of the Rose Theatre in Southwark with the modern acoustics and comfortable seating choices of the RSC’s Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, Kingston’s Rose Theatre is a gem that deserves much more attention. Most of Much Ado’s action unfolds on the thrust stage which, in order to be transformed into a luxury spa in the hills of Messina, needs only a few potted orange trees, sun loungers and a reception desk on its periphery — that, and an pre-recorded voiceover reciting the amenities on offer to its wealthy guests, in English and Italian. Setting this Much Ado in a spa is a smart choice: despite the modernity, its facilities run along gender-segregated lines, leaving ample opportunity for factions to form and gossip to run rampant.
Other interesting artistic choices abound: rather than a masked ball in the first act, Dormandy opts for a wonderfully irreverent costume-party-turned-rave — I never thought I’d document a black cat playing the accordion beside a Stormtrooper on strings, but here we are. It’s a smorgasbord of visual puns, both overt (Leonato the lion, anyone?) and subtle: Benedick as a dinosaur, stubbornly stuck in his ways with only a matter of time before his world is completely upended; Don John as the Hulk, deceptively even-tempered on the outside but one word away from anarchic destruction on the inside; Hero, supposedly ready to marry a man she barely knows, in a Minnie Mouse dress with matching ears.
There’s also substantial dramatic value to the visual metaphors: when Calam Lynch’s Claudio accepts his first cigar from Peter Guinness’s Don Pedro in Act One, it’s immediately clear how much satisfaction Don Pedro gets from playing the role of mentor, of reaffirming that he is the wisest man in the room. On an ensemble level, when Don Pedro makes his first appearance with his entourage and exchanges formalities with Leonato, the ladies retreat to the stage edges so that the men can maintain an inner circle. Later, during the aforementioned costume party, we look on as Hero is shepherded into the centre of the dancefloor, surrounded exclusively by masked men. She is clearly intimidated by their gazes but is reflexively inclined to hide it. This power imbalance is reversed in the second wedding dance of Act Five, which places Claudio at the centre. He isn’t leered at, but scrutinised and – literally, in a moment of dark comedy – sized up. The women’s costumes and choreography pay homage to traditional Sicilian dances with black cloaks and bird masks, turning their circle into a vulture-like reckoning.
The freshness of this Much Ado also comes down to the performances by some of its key players. Whether via combative dialogue or languorous soliloquies, Jon Hopkins breathes new life into Benedick’s lines. He delivers some excellent physical comedy in the vein of farces like Noises Off, beginning with a backward fall over a sun lounger and finishing with a misjudged somersault into some bar chairs. Stewart Wright’s Dogberry – head of spa security, naturally – joins in on the action to hilarious effect, with both men trying in vain to replicate tropes from espionage films and earning laughs aplenty from the audience as a consequence. Likewise, Mel Giedroyc’s Beatrice does a decent job of getting shut inside a parasol during Hero and Ursula’s ruse, accidentally setting off a cacophony of music and mood lighting by knocking into a panel of switches.
Despite being this adaptation’s most obvious selling point, Mel Giedroyc’s performance as Beatrice was the least surprising element of the night. I had little to no doubt that she would deliver in the role — I was simply curious as to how her Beatrice would differ from others’ and (as I’m sure the rest of the audience were wondering) what kind of persona she can craft outside of the TV presenter role for which she is so cherished. There are moments throughout where, rather than allowing the words to elicit laughs without scaffolding, Giedroyc risks overacting with her whole body. As Michael Billington puts it in his review for The Guardian, her Beatrice “is good but, even to the last, a bit too relentlessly aggressive[i]”.
But, clearly having a ball in every scene, she makes the role her own. The aggressive physicality is a minor side effect of her devotion to slapstick comedy, pulling faces and poking fun whilst other characters are delivering their lines. Her Beatrice loves invading everyone else’s personal space: the lovable and loyal class clown of the spa community, she is too volatile to be constrained by the conventional criteria of settling down. Which is not to say that Giedroyc’s performance lacks nuance — after falling for Benedick under Hero and Ursula’s spell of invented hearsay, she is left alone on stage, the only one around to catch – or not to catch – a bouquet. As she skirts the fallen petals with trepidation, we witness Beatrice’s first moment of vulnerability, a chink in the shining armour of her unapologetic self-possession.
In contrast to what I’d expected of a screen-and-sketch maven like Giedroyc, I was absolutely stunned to learn that Much Ado is Calam Lynch’s professional stage debut, having appeared in the critically acclaimed Dunkirk last year but little else prior. Fresh from the University of Oxford, he recites the Bard with a steady assurance beyond his years; the raw emotion behind his lines upgrades his Claudio from a petulant manchild to a war hero whose repressed trauma surfaces in extreme mood swings and self-sabotage. Indeed, it’s easy to forget that thematically, when it comes to the dangers of miscommunication and deception, Much Ado is more closely aligned with Othello or The Winter’s Tale than, say, A Comedy of Errors. I’m inclined to agree with Dormandy’s point in the programme’s foreword that Much Ado’s darker themes are often overlooked in favour of Beatrice & Benedick’s flirty banter[ii]. Crystallised in Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson’s iconic performances on film in 1993, the headstrong characters’ clever barbs are easier to market than the play’s more insidious subtext about how the patriarchy perpetuates itself like a well-dressed ourobouros. Which brings me to the element that took me most by surprise in this Much Ado, the character in whom I’d never previously invested high emotional stakes: Hero.
Despite being the arguable centerpiece of the drama, on paper Hero is at risk of being treated as little more than a sentient prop for the duration of the play, devoid of any real personality or lasting character development. But the liberties Dormandy takes with scene interludes means that we get to see Kate Lamb’s Hero singing into a hairbrush, jumping up and down on her hotel bed to the beat of peppy electronica. During her bridal preparation, rather than being effusive with nervous cheer around Margaret and Ursula, Hero is on the verge of becoming a shrill bridezilla, her feet feeling the figurative chill. It’s both the funniest and most realistic depiction of the character I’ve ever seen: she’s just trying to enjoy being a teenager, and yet is thrust into the spotlight of men’s desires and onto a pedestal of their expectations.
Out of all of Shakespeare’s female characters, she strikes me as one of the most suitable ambassadors for the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. The thought first occurred to me as I watched Hero trying to verbally and physically assert herself when Peter Guinness’s Don Pedro was getting too close for comfort in his pursuit on Claudio’s behalf (at one point he literally tries to kiss her on the mouth, after he’s shed the disguise). In Lamb’s Hero, in the quietly desperate swerves of her feet as they searched for an escape route, and in her persistent repositioning of men’s hands wandering where they shouldn’t, I saw myself and my peers:
Hero: I am yours for the walk; and especially when I walk away.
Don Pedro: With me in your company?
Hero: I may say so, when I please.
Don Pedro: And when please you to say so?
The moment Don Pedro yanks her back by the arm on “when I walk away”, what reads like playful persistence for the greater good of a friendship becomes unsolicited attention and passive-aggression before an audience. A universal truth is brought, quite literally, to centre stage: as a woman, Hero is forced to master the political art of rejecting men’s advances without endangering herself or jeopardizing her father’s connections.
Something else I hadn’t appreciated until watching Dormandy’s Much Ado was the way in which the play showcases the full spectrum of toxic masculinity through its range of male characters, from its paradigm to its antithesis. Where the main players stand should be clear enough: Benedick is a privileged free agent, loafing around (in loafers) with no incentive to admit his discomfort around women, but by Act Four, inspired by love for Beatrice, he becomes a vocal advocate for Hero’s honour in the face of his friends’ opposition. Peter Bray’s Don John takes his resentment for his disgraced position in life out on the world in an act of chaotic evil, using Hero and her reputation as a disposable means to an end. Don Pedro and Don John may share blood, but Don Pedro and Leonato (played with suitable gravitas by seasoned thespian and voice actor David Rintoul) are more alike in their shared positions of authority in the patriarchy, and their long-standing bias in favour of other men’s credibility over their own kinswomen.
When we “examine” the secondary characters, things become even more interesting. In his recurring abuse of legal jargon, Dogberry embodies the more benign, bumbling side of toxic masculinity, the side that maintains an enviable level of confidence in his own willful ignorance masquerading as expertise, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the side that would wreak utter havoc were it not for the interventions of more level-headed characters like the House Clerk. Assuming the role of redeemed sinner at the eleventh hour, Borachio does his best to undo his slander against Margaret before the authorities — his behaviour until this point has been manipulative, cruel, and imitative of Don John, but rather than deflect the blame, he owns up to his actions and demonstrates a willingness not only to learn from them, but also do the hard work of repentance. Where Claudio takes the easy road of believing his male friends rather than pledging any meaningful loyalty to his new bride, Caolan McCarthy’s Friar Francis uses his privilege and position of authority as a clergyman to be a responsible ally during the climactic wedding of Act Four. In the face of Claudio’s spit-laced accusations and Leonato’s patriarchal fury, he casts a welcome spell of calm:
Friar Francis (to Hero): Have comfort, lady.
Leonato (to Hero, maliciously): Dost thou look up?
Friar Francis: Yea, wherefore should she not? […] Call me a fool, trust not my reading nor my observations, which with experimental seal doth warrant the tenor of my book; trust not my age, my reverence, calling, nor divinity, if this sweet lady lie not guiltless here under some biting error.
Even if the plot and prose of Much Ado About Nothing seems more familiar to you than the taste of freshly squeezed (Seville) orange juice, Dormandy and his talented cast have offered up a production that casts a fresh eye on both its comic style and its dramatic diagnosis of a patriarchy on the brink of self-destruction. To shamelessly misquote Benedick in the final Act: get thee a ticket, get thee a ticket!
Much Ado About Nothing is the Rose Theatre’s 10th Anniversary celebration show in collaboration with Granville & Parham Productions and Antic Face. On until May 6th, for tickets visit here.
[i] Billington, Michael. ‘Much Ado About Nothing review: Mel Giedroyc and The Great Sicilian Bake-Off’ <https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/apr/19/much-ado-about-nothing-review-mel-giedroyc> Accessed 23 April 2018.
[ii] Dormandy, Simon. ‘A Note From the Director’, programme for Much Ado About Nothing (2018)