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Much Ado About Nothing Reviewed

The most entertaining version Joan Davies has seen, but there's still problems at the heart

Written by . Published on April 2nd 2014.

Much Ado About Nothing Reviewed

MARIA ABERG’s Royal Exchange production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing has plenty of fun, verve and dancing. There’s even a little Beyoncé.

he ease with which Hero’s reputation is publicly destroyed without her having a chance to defend herself is difficult to believe, even before the invention of Twitter.  

It’s probably the most entertaining version I’ve seen. But there are still problems at the heart of this play, particularly for modern audiences.

The structure of the story revolves around Claudio, a young count freshly returned from brave service in the war, and Hero, a quiet and modest young lady whose charms are enhanced by a considerable inheritance.

Beatrice and BenedickBeatrice and Benedick

They manage to fall in love without, it appears, ever having had a conversation. Claudio is highly regarded by powerful prince Don Pedro whose half-brother, the jealous Don John (literally a bastard), hatches a plot of deception to destroy the happy couple out of spite.

The plot deceives, as the real interest to audiences is the courtship of Benedick and Beatrice, both avowed singletons, fascinated by one another even before the play starts. 

While Hero and Claudio gaze at one another, Benedick and Beatrice score points, bouncing tart, sharp and clever wordplay between them. Their intent never to marry at all combined with their obvious fascination in one another encourages their friends into a deception: both Benedick and Beatrice ‘accidentally’ overhear talk of the other’s love for them, and rather quickly begin to like the idea. 

Director Maria Aberg, in her first visit to the Royal Exchange, moves the setting from renaissance Italy to post WW2. The sexual tension is immense as the women greet the men returning from war. The outcome is clear almost from the start; it’s the journey that’s of interest. 

Dogberry and VergesDogberry and Verges

Aberg makes use of the post-1945 setting to place women in a few traditionally male roles. Marty Cruikshank plays Leonata, the mother rather than the usual father of Hero, forcing a fresh look at parental despair in the face of her daughter’s apparent ‘wantonness’.

Sandy Foster and Beverly Rudd play the police roles of Dogberry and Verges in place of the usual men, in an exactly-timed comic routine of police buddies enhanced by a musical Valkyrie helmet which plays snatches of tunes you’ll recognise, but won’t always place. 

The masked ball, played in outsized identikit masks to Benny Goodman’s WW2 swing sound, delivers a riot of highly quality dancing, particularly from Danny Dalton and Sophia Momvete, while questioning the roles we play to ourselves and others. It seems out of place, but is in fact central to the themes of deception and love. 

Paul Ready as Benedick and Ellie Piercey as Beatrice are, as usual, the stars. I’m initially not so sure about the early-Kevin Webster type appearance of Benedick, he usually has more class and gravitas, but the approach quickly works well.

The two ‘overhearing’ scenes are superb, the actors making physical use of the in-the-round space and audience proximity to great comic effect while never losing the power of the lines. It’s great to see a Press Night performance where the timing so accurately allows for audience laughter. 

Beatrice and BenedickBeatrice and Benedick

As Hero, Becci Gemmell is liveliest when there’s no men present. Not surprising really, the way the men treat her. Shameless star Gerard Kearns, a superb young local actor playing Claudio, is magnificent when he has no lines, gazing rapturously at Hero on their engagement and tearing in anguish at Hero’s ‘grave’. 

Merle Hensel’s set design places the actors on a slightly raised stage, until the very end when their feet touch ground, possibly signifying the characters move away from self-deception.

This is an impressive production for Maria Aberg’s first work at The Royal Exchange. Imaginative use is made of the space and there are only a few moments when its regular problems appear.

The difficulties with the play are not resolved. Beatrice’s injunction to Benedick brings a laugh rather than a gasp of horror, and the ease with which Hero’s reputation is publicly destroyed without her having a chance to defend herself is difficult to believe, even before the invention of Twitter.   

I don’t think it comes as any spoiler to reveal that love triumphs and there’s a double wedding at the end, though personally I think Claudio should have ended up banished. That’s down to Shakespeare though, and not the direction.

Royal Exchange TheatreRoyal Exchange Theatre

Follow Joan Davies @joand7

Much Ado About Nothing is at the Royal Exchange Theatre until Saturday 3 May 2014.

Tickets here

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