Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Much Ado About Nothing - Redshift Theatre 2007

Much Ado About Nothing 
Redshift Theatre, Hertfordshire, UK.

"I could imagine" says director Jonathan Holloway of Much Ado About Nothing "it working much better in war torn nineties Sarajevo than in Kenneth Branagh's Tuscany". Doing it better than Branagh? That's a rather big challenge for a director to set himself.

Textually, Much Ado begins with the victors returning home from a war that has just ended. Holloway plays with this time-frame so that the characters are actually in the middle of the war, both geographically and chronologically. We are moved from a carefree state where men finally have the chance in peacetime to fall in love, to "a world in which people are in constant danger" (set designer William Fricker in the programme notes). But this makes a nonsense of the whole premise of the play. War is not 'nothing' about which 'much ado' is made. War, as we see in this production, is serious and brutal. If we can hear the sounds of battle filtering onto the stage, how can we believe Claudio when he says of 'this ended action' that 'war-thoughts Have left their places vacant'? A production could be successful in having the heroes come home to a safe arena from a battle that is still raging elsewhere, but to set them in the midst of sniper fire is surely a step too far.

Fricker's set is a "destroyed public space" that has been "reclaimed"and turned into a safe haven. Plastic sheeting and banners act as enclosing walls and there is a sandbagged crawl-space entrance at the back of the room. A string of fairy lights, some coffee tables, musical equipment and a microphone give the impression of a covert lounge-bar, hastily set up in defiance of the war raging outside. It certainly lives up to Holloway's brief and is in itself a good solid set design. It creates a sense of claustrophobia as well as being an all-purpose playing area, and functionally allowing the six players to control the music from on stage. However, I have severe doubts about its suitability as a setting for a version of Much Ado.

The music itself ranges from modern rock and pop played on a radio through to the haunting compositions of composer Sarah Llewellyn, hummed, sung and played live by the multi-talented cast, as well as used as background to the action. Whilst setting the scene for melancholy this incidental music is occasionally too intrusive, conflicting with the action rather than complementing it. In a stroke of genius the well-known 'Sigh no more, ladies' traditionally sung by Balthasar is turned by Hero into a modern club anthem, focusing on a chorus of 'Hey nonny, nonny' and including the whole cast in a line-dance. The best version of this song that I've ever heard, it is worthy of any current song-and-dance pop-group and would surely hit the heights if released as a single.

Whilst the set and music are entirely adequate, the direction of this piece leaves much to be desired. The entire focus of the play is shifted away from the Beatrice-Benedick banter, pulling the Claudio-Hero relationship to the fore and centering on Don Pedro as protagonist. Don Pedro - described in the text by Beatrice as 'too costly to wear every day' - is here portrayed as a sleazy tyrant, suspicious and aggressive, sniggering at the misfortune of others, embittered by the war and yet at the same time embracing it. He gropes Hero, is furious with Leonato at being deceived over her death, and snarls at Benedick's entreaty to 'get thee a wife', choosing instead to kiss his gun and walk back out into the fray. This man is certainly not the honourable prince that we know from the text and differs little from his villainous brother. Both Dons are played by Chris Porter, who works well enough in the smaller role of Don John but is not able to bring the required hardness to this much altered version of Don Pedro, playing him with a bravado that is more lager-lout than soldier.

Having been relegated to the status of supporting characters, Benedick (Dean Lepley) and Beatrice (Rebecca Pownall) don't get to make the most of their witticisms and derisive banter. Lepley speaks his verse beautifully and is a passable Benedick, but not one strong enough to be any sort of match for Beatrice. I actually preferred him in his secondary role of Borachio. Pownall is obviously a capable actress, and tries for a Beatrice with the tough shell of a northern barmaid, squawking out put-downs all over. If she misses the mark it is because she takes this act too far, shouting out insults, almost screaming at Benedick. She leaves us with the impression of a brash and batty woman, with none of the ' merry heart' of the 'pleasant-spirited lady' that Don Pedro believes her to be. When she pulls this back a step (as when refusing Don Pedro's proposal) it is clear that she has the skills needed to give us a feisty Beatrice without slipping into the campness of pantomime. It is sad to see that there is no chemistry created between these two characters and none of the sexual tension that we have come to expect. I really didn't care whether they got together or not.

What is really heartbreaking about this production is the way that the comedy is just thrown away. Director Jonathan Holloway says of Much Ado that "in the right hands it can be funny". This seems a little unfair to Shakespeare. The original text is funny. True, in some of Shakespeare's comedies the director really has to work to find the humour, but in Much Ado it stares brazenly from the page. The scenes where Beatrice and Benedick are each baited by their friends into believing that the other is in love with them are two of Shakespeare's funniest and are not difficult to translate to the stage. Last year's RSC production with Joseph Millson and Tamsin Greig had audiences gasping for breath as they pulled every last laugh from these scenes. Redshift start with half an idea and then let it trail lamely off. The set up for Benedick's scene is excellent. He steals the housecoat and wig that we previously saw Margaret wear and dusts his way closer to hear what his friends are saying, even joining in the conversation as they pretend not to know who he is. Slower paced and with more attention to timing this set up could have been hilarious but instead it was just mildly amusing. Beatrice didn't even try for laughs, merely crouching under a plastic panel to listen as her friends set her up. In the race to get back to the theme of war the comedy falls by the wayside.

Another of Holloway's visions was of presenting the play in a "cabaret style". To this end he has a microphone at the front of the stage, into which some of the characters speak their lines. Used as a tool to enhance the comedic banter of Beatrice and Benedick this could have worked well. Unfortunately the poor sound quality further distorted lines that were already falling flat due to lack of emphasis and comic timing.

The overall presentation of the play is rather poor. Liberties have been taken with the text, simplifying and substituting dialogue as well as inserting new lines, presumably in order to make the play more accessible. But at the same time the story itself is complicated by the distortion of the characters and setting, making it confusing even for someone who knows the play very well. The actors swap characters with little evidence of who they're playing, and since they are all on stage most of the time it becomes unclear whether or not they are actually involved in the scene, are (in character) listening from afar, or are simply waiting for their next scene to begin. The set itself is quite dimly lit and although I didn't have a problem with this in itself I did feel that the lighting cues were slightly off, leaving actors in darkness when they should have been illuminated. Despite Holloway's assertion of the importance of the Sarajevo setting, there is no visual evidence of this in the play itself and the characters could be in the middle of any armed combat anywhere. Holloway frames the play with gunshots, starting it - quite literally - with a bang as Don Pedro shoots a bound and blindfolded prisoner, and echoing this at the end by having Hero die by sniper fire just before her wedding, thus changing the whole tone of the play from comedy to tragedy.

Nigel Francis carries off a very presentable Leonato, despite being much younger than his character. Fflur Medi Owen as Hero is adorable in tiny ponytails and very short shorts (although how well they fit with her supposedly modest character I'm not sure). Both actors also show their versatility when doubling up as other characters: Francis as man-eater Margaret and Owen as watchman George Seacole. The star of the show however, has to be Simon Spencer-Hyde who plays both Claudio and Dogberry. Claudio, often criticised for his poor treatment of Hero, becomes a far more sympathetic character in this production. This is partly due to Spencer-Hyde's ability to get completely under the skin of the love-sick youngster, and partly because we can see what a poor example in behaviour he has been set by Don Pedro. As Dogberry, Spencer-Hyde has to hit the complete opposite end of the spectrum, playing a bumbling old army officer, injured in body and confused of mind. In the text, Dogberry's dialogue is very obviously comedic, and here it is supplemented by a lot of additional original material, much of it ostensibly improvised. There is a lot of physical comedy in these scenes, much slapstick, and the incorporation of circus skills such as juggling. Choreographed by leading clown (Tweedy) Alan Digweed, this part of the production is an absolute hit. Supported by Verges - who in this version is an amputee on a skateboard - and pregnant teenage 'chav' watchman George Seacole, Dogberry blunders about dropping and losing things, getting tangled up and tripping over, and shouting the wrong words at the wrong people. Dogberry's bumbling dialogue is funny but his speech is 'dumbed-down' by having Verges explain to us what he actually meant to say. Surely if you have to explain a joke... Whilst I unreservedly loved Spencer-Hyde's Dogberry I remain confused as to why this character was played up quite so much. Special lights and music were put on as Spencer-Hyde changed from Claudio to Dogberry, whilst other character changes were done in darkness. Dogberry would have been an ideal candidate to use as part of the 'cabaret' act but this opportunity is not used. And once again we see a character being stretched from its textual version: in this case Dogberry the 'merciful man' becomes gleeful when given charge of Borachio and takes a twisted pleasure in beating and torturing him. I wasn't really sure what to make of this. When the play finally finds some comedy we find that it doesn't actually belong to Shakespeare.

In exploring the "conflicting dualities" of the play, director Jonathan Holloway has sought to create a production that is individual and fresh. He has shaped the entire piece in a way that works with his dark and "brutal" interpretation of the play. But shifting the focus, distorting the characters and stretching the plot as far as he has results in a piece of theatre that is at best highly unbalanced and at worst no longer even Shakespeare. It seems that his interest has been piqued by one particular element and he has pursued this one thread to the exclusion of all else. Exploring just one aspect of a play can be dangerous and wildly misleading. Romeo and Juliet has its comic elements but who would credit a version that focused solely on the comedy and where the paramedics rush in and restore the lives of the young lovers resulting in a happy ending? This would be a liberty too far. Holloway's exploration would have worked better as an original companion piece to Much Ado such as Roy Williams’Days of Significance. Holloway's former productions have been award-winning and ground-breaking but sadly this production of Much Ado About Nothing is merely disappointing.

This review was originally published on The Shakespeare Revue. 

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