Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, which is a at the New Vic in Newcastle-Under-Lyme until Saturday March 2nd and then touring.
Director Conrad Nelson has set his Northern Broadsides swan song in 1945. The Battle for Europe has ceased … but the Battle of the Sexes is about to begin. And it won’t be all over by Christmas.
The brave, uniformed men of the RAF have flown home and their new, enticing allies are the Land Army girls, with headscarves, heavy boots and pails of pigswill.
In a lovely touch, the stage is cleverly populated with road signs to all the venues on the company’s tour – Newcastle, Halifax, Scarborough – all safely removed from their posts and strewn about to fool any invading army.
A double bass strikes up in celebration, and the cast begins with a highly authentic rendition of “Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree With Anyone Else But Me”. The period is so perfectly recreated, I was slightly surprised when they started speaking Shakespeare.
This is a pig of a play to pitch. The Bard forcefully collides silliness with abject nastiness, lovie-doveyness with misogyny, and innocence with malevolence. The swings of mood are so rapid, the audience never quite knows where they are with it. Nelson chooses to accentuate this by not only ‘removing the signposts’ (physical and metaphorical) but also by making the comedy cosier, and the violence against women all the more chilling. One instant I was roaring at jolly byplay, the next I had to look away as Hero is hurtled across the floor. The vicious movement in that scene is particularly powerful.
It all makes for a bumpy ride. It’s a play of parts, rather than an homogenous whole. So, Nelson’s sketch-like cascade of production ideas works well. There are flashing references to Stan & Ollie and Cinderella’s Slipper (or, in this case, gum boot) with a smiling splash of ‘Dad’s Army’. Put Dogberry in a Home Guard uniform and you suddenly realise Shakespeare created Captain Mainwaring centuries ago. It’s a great game for the audience to play. In Benedict I spotted touches of Tommy Handley, Brian Rix and even Groucho Marx…whilst Beatrice is very Gracie Fields.
As is the fashion, the bickering lovers are going slightly grey. Robin Simpson’s comic timing is pretty damned perfect. His anguished looks at the audience, whilst Isobel Middleton gets a great ‘cob on’, are priceless. The two concealment scenes (where the reluctant lovers overhear a few home truths) are comedy highlights. Benedict climbs an uncertain circus ladder…or secrets himself under a lady on the front row, working her like a puppet. In her turn, Beatrice hides behind a gardener’s barrow which then gets wheeled away….or in a swill bin, which then gets topped up. The whole Ealing Comedy business of people pretending not to know who’s listening to them is the show’s best recurring gag.
Sarah Kameela Impey is a fine, wrong-ed damsel and Richard J Fletcher plays the evil Don John like a shady informer. He quite rightly gets the Devil’s mask at the ball.
Rebekah Hughes’ music is extremely entertaining throughout. I especially liked The Inkspots treatment of Shakespeare’s sonnet ‘Sigh No More’ … and the occasional left-field appearances of a very grumpy actor, who’d rather be at the RSC, brought the house down. If you’re going to have fun with Shakespeare, you might as well go the whole hog … and my one wish is that the production could have broken away from the Bard a little more.
As it is, the company does pay him due reverence, especially his darker side, whilst running amok with his love stories. I don’t suppose scholars will particularly like this production, but the paying public certainly will.
Photo : Nobby Clarke