Much Ado About Nothing at the Arts Theatre
The battle of the sexes, sixteenth century style in Much Ado is its hotline to the contemporary imagination. Little wonder. So far from being about Nothing, the play turns on the nature of love, loyalty and prejudice. And it is funny. Shakespeare deploys his dramatist’ s timing to create comic capers we can laugh over, combined with a dark-unto-death plot that shocks any first-time viewer to the core. Here is a drama that comes close modern mores – the badinage between its sub-plot stars, Benedict and Beatrice echoes the fast- fire wit in today’s smash TV hit ‘Catastrophe’ – a couple who love to fight entertainingly, addicted to the high wire act of conflict. Much Ado about Nothing has been a musical, several films and any actress worth her salt revels in the expansive outrageous character of Beatrice. Georgia Vyvyan plays her in the The Marlowe Society ‘s production, at the Arts theatre. She steals the show in a firecracker of a performance and never drops a chance to crack a wicked line or turn a pun.
Messina in Sicily is the setting for the play. The Marlowe Society set under Director Richard Beecham is uber-minimalist stripped back modernism and relies entirely on lighting to suggest day and night, a sunshiney opening (with audio of dogs barking) or deep night for dastardly deeds. The audience has to work hard to visualize the lush court scene of aristocratic splendour we’re told is around us, And comic scenes where both Beatrice and Benedict hide to overhear their friends talking about them, are harder to pull off. Beatrice behind a laundry airer works but Benedict hidden by a pole not so much. Modern dress is interesting, but when all the tall slim men are in army khaki it becomes well nigh impossible to pick up who’s who until well into the first act.
Don John the Bastard played with a bad-boy sneer by Leo Benedict lurks laconically in the background of the action. He has reconciled with his feuding brother Don Pedro - Benedict Clarke gives him the well-meaning air of a Prince William – and all appears to be going swimmingly in the kingdom as the brothers meet for a family get-together. The Duke sponsors a marriage between his lieutenant Claudio, his callow character slowly evinced by a convincing Jamie Sayers, and a super-naïve youthful Hero, the daughter of the house. Jessica Murdoch in the role looks so entirely innocent throughout the entire action, oozing girlish charm and ingenuous goodness, that it is hard to believe it when she’s accused at the altar at her wedding to Claudio of being some sort of whoring prostitute. But she is so arraigned, and understandably collapses in distress. Which is where the play gets truly intriguing. Bridegroom Claudio and the nice-but-dim Duke are all too keen to believe the ‘evidence’ of Hero’s double character they’ve witnessed the night before. In fact they swallowed the improbable tale from the moment they heard it. Even her mother Leonata joins in (Shimali de Silva creates a great hysterical matriarch combining anger at her innocent daughter and fury at her accusers.) The fun duel between the sexes suddenly collapses into a deadly stand-off . The Duke and Claudio want disgrace to fall heavily on the distraught bride – and only her friends, lead by cousin Beatrice, believe in her. Apart from Benedict. Now in love with Beatrice, he sticks by her and her disgraced kinswoman and – as a test of his love, challenges Claudio to a duel. Harry Redding’s Benedict makes real the transition from clowning carefree man-about-town to hapless lover and over to principled champion of wronged woman – the audience feels like cheering as alone among his sex, he stands his ground on behalf of Hero. On the advice of the family padre she as feigned death as a break from the horror of dishonour - and with a view to provoking remorse in her bridegroom.
It’s all sorted out in the end. Hero emerges alive and marries the sorrier-than-he-can-say Claudio. Don John is at the back of it (being known as the Bastard’ all your life must have an effect) but not before a Shakespearean comic interlude. These can be dire we know. Humour does not survive so well down the centuries and often players strain every sinew for a comic effect with scant success. Not Eleanor Lind Bootol as Dogberry the Neighbourhood Watch Chief. With gilet jaune vest, scooter helmet and officious air, this Nightwatch is bursting with enthusiasm for action. Sidekick Vergis played with hilarious gormlessness by Amaya Holman in bobble hat and cycling trews scuttles across the stage in the wrong direction, puffed up with civic enthusiasm and between them they get a pantomime rapport going “ Are you all good men and true?” they bawl at the audience and on the third try, we were roaring support for a comedy duo who made us laugh.
Which is right for a play about love and how much we underestimate its power.
Much Ado About Nothing is at the Arts Theatre until 26th January