Wednesday 22nd May 2019 at Harrogate Theatre.
Two sets of lovers tricked and tussled into emotional contortions somewhere between euphoria and agony? Welcome to one of Shakespeare’s more disturbing comedies!
Conrad Nelson directs and under the wing of Liz Evans’ designs, the play is set circa the end of WW2, channeling the best music of the era to punctuate the plot with ditties and lively choreography (Beverley Norris-Edmunds) to the likes of Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy. Billed as ‘Shakespeare’s Greatest Romantic Comedy’, this production is actually most impressive in its explosive dramatic moments, though there is a wealth of comedy fodder too. Nelson works to keep the action light and lively before pitching us into the deep end for the helpless plight of a goodly maiden.
It’s another of Will’s maze plots so brace yourself… Benedick (Robin Simpson) and Beatrice (Isobel Middleton) are a match made in bickering heaven. Benedick can’t stand love but inevitably falls thanks to the knavery of his fellow men. Beatrice is fiercely independent and in a world of men on top, she’s at the bottom taking a saw to the leg of the ladder. Alas though, even independent woman Beatrice is no match for the powers of love love looove!
Alongside the dramatic irony-fuelled Beatrice/Benedick shenanigans runs the Hero (Sarah Kameela Impey) and Claudio (Linford Johnson) storyline. The pair are young lovers set to be wed. All is not plain sailing though as the awful Don John conspires to have Claudio fooled into believing that the darling Hero has not only been unfaithful in her love, but has outrageously enjoyed the company of another between her bedsheets. Of all the sins on God’s green earth, the spoiling of a maiden is of course the most unforgivable, so what else is a fellow to do but set up a grand scheme to shame her before all and sundry as she turns up to church?
The Beatrice/Benedick plot great – from comedy to scripting, they get the best of the best and the parts are played beautifully by Middleton and Simpson who prove themselves great comic talents as well as sensitive to the melodies of the bard and his beautiful text. Their physical comedy is some of the best to be found in this production and they are most definitely the combined highlight, with Middleton earning additional appreciation for Beatrice’s fiery tempest against the chains of patriarchy.
Yet while the Beatrice/ Benedick plot is a victimless crime, the much darker trickery at play when it comes to Hero and Claudio takes this comedy from skipping through daisy fields to wading through domestic upheaval resembling apocolyptic fire and ash. The bard is certainly as much of a comic wordsmith and social commentary harbourer as ever here, but the scenes of Hero’s undoing take this play beyond the joke in a way which dwarfs the treatment of poor Malvolio in Twelfth Night and leans more towards the brutishness of The Taming of the Shrew. Will must have had quite a chip on his shoulder when he was quilling this one…
Why so deep and dark? Because Hero gets a raw deal from all around her, from her quick to rage father Leonato (Simeon Truby) to her friends who remain mute in the moments when their voices would have counted most, and by keeper of her heart Claudio and his right hand man Don Pedro (Matt Rixon). Poor lass.
Johnson is excellent as Claudio – fierce with palpable indignation and delivering a performance which demands pity for the tormented Hero. But in a scene which loudly outshines much of the rest of the play, Truby and Impey prove themselves impressively dexterous in the scope of their respective characters. Impey’s Hero is the perfect archetypal blushing virgin and Impey ensures we feel outrage on Hero’s behalf (well, that was my reaction…) Truby is brutish as the wronged father, hammering home the disturbing ferocity awaiting the female sex when the patriarch finds himself undermined. Thankfully though, Hero’s trial doesn’t last long as our trailblazing Beatrice steps up and with the help of the sincere Antonio (Andrew Whitehead), a master plan and an infatuated man eager to prove himself, all is not lost.
There’s plenty of comedy in the way of scripted wit well delivered, some lovely physicality and slapstick with lots of gurning reactions from across the cast to tickle the funny bones. The best of the comic scenes lie in the setting of the traps, with Hammond and Impey planting the seeds of foolery for Beatrice beautifully and Whitehead, Truby and Johnson orchestrating Benedick’s romantic undoing with equal infectious glee. David Nellist is of particular note, offering some reliable quirky comic relief as Dogberry alongside the light of step and character Margaret (Sophia Hatfield) and Ursula (Rachel Hammond).
Categorised comedy or not, this play gives gritty drama a run for its money and in delivering those horrid scenes with such brilliant intensity, the comedy lost a little of its shine for me…what isn’t without shine though is the accessibility and liveliness of the production, so catch it if you can.
Much Ado About Nothing is a co production of Northern Broadsides and the New Vic Theatre. It plays its last tour stop at Harrogate Theatre until May 25th 2019 and you can find tickets here.