Latest Review – Much Ado About Nothing (Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester)

[Image: Ellie Piercy as Beatrice and Paul Ready as Benedick. Photo: © Jonathan Keenan]

Divisive is most certainly a label which can be applied to the work of Swedish born theatre director, Maria Aberg, as those who saw her recent, updated Royal Shakespeare Company productions of King John and As You Like It will I’m sure attest.

Making her Royal Exchange Theatre directing debut, Aberg’s new production of Shakespeare’s joyous prose-heavy comedy, here updated to a celebratory, post World War II world does have a few somewhat discordant traits interspersed throughout, however those going into the theatre expecting something similar to the director’s previous, contemporary, modern dress Shakespearean productions will I’m sure be pleasantly surprised at what is on offer here.

Enhancing the effects of war on the Home Front, Aberg has here made the mobilisation of women a key theme of the piece, most notable in the gender-blind casting of the self-satisfied night constable, Dogberry, and the Governor of Messina, Leonato, who is here transformed into the fiery Leonata, though is still listed as Governor and not Governess in the cast list.

The World War II setting is fine, however aside from the costumes and the aforementioned casting changes, the production never fully alludes to this fact, rendering the updated setting slightly insignificant.

Considering Much Ado is one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated comedies, the sparkling comedy in the actual text itself, which is, it has to be said, superbly constructed, is sadly underplayed. The newly added-in physical comedy is however exaggerated too much, often overshadowing the humour and lyrical quality of the piece. It is in fact the rarer dramatic scenes which deliver the production’s more effective and memorable moments.

There are some unusual decisions woven throughout the production which, as amusing as they may (or perhaps may not) be, I’m afraid only work against the piece and ultimately add nothing to either the narrative or the updated setting. The masquerade scene, which can be so beautifully staged with Venetian masks in the more traditional, Italian-set productions, is here transformed into a big band dance, complete with absurd giant heads, coloured streamers and a fusion of traditional swing music and contemporary hits such as the likes of Beyonce, again completely detracting from the wartime setting. (I couldn’t quite work out whether the actors were mic’d up inside the heads or they were miming to a pre-recorded voiceover; a strange decision whatever the case may be!).

The relationship between Benedick and Beatrice is often well realised, however it is never quite as taught as it can at the best of times be; that is of course down to the direction and by no means the fault of the actors. The result being that the respective characters ultimately feel a little too light and frothy, and without that underlying bite, the animosity between the pair is never established effectively enough, rendering their mutual changes of heart almost anticlimactic and never quite as powerful as could be.

Performances however are very strong across the board, most notably from Paul Ready and Ellie Piercy as Benedick and Beatrice, Jason Baughan as Don Pedro, Marty Cruickshank as Leonata, Milo Twomey as Don John and Geoff Lesley as Friar Francis.

There are some issues with diction and volume, as is often the case in the in-the-round setting, causing a number of important lines to be lost and gabbled.

All in all, an enjoyable production without being overly memorable.

Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes, including one 20-minute interval | Act One: 70 minutes (approx.) , Act Two: 50 minutes (approx.)

Much Ado About Nothing’ runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until Saturday 3 May, 2014.

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