Much Ado About Nothing: William Shakespeare

Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing

★★★½

(Shakespeare’s Globe, 2011)

This is the third production of Much Ado that I’ve seen in the last four months (note to self: be more adventurous). After the creative but unsuccessful version at the Old Vic, with its elderly Beatrice and Benedick, and the excellent modern adaptation by Joss Whedon, it was interesting to compare them to this more traditional interpretation. Jeremy Herrin’s 2011 production is one of the few performances filmed for the Globe’s DVD series, which I’ve mentioned before: like the two parts of Henry IV, which I watched recently, it was a real pleasure.

In fact, this particular film shows off the Globe’s challenges and charms as a venue: it buckets down with rain throughout the second half, but despite that the groundlings are remarkably full of good humour. They engage with the play to an extent that’s rare even by the Globe’s standards. The comic scenes are greeted by peals of laughter and, as the plot thickens, the wicked Don John provokes bouts of pantomime-style hissing (which he clearly relishes). This Much Ado is exuberant, colourful and – typically for the Globe – played for laughs, with only a few flashes of poignancy: it has the ‘merry war’ firmly at its heart.

I’ll assume that by now you’re familiar with the plot, having had it forced on you twice before; but I must make one comment about the setting. Shakespeare chose to set his play in Messina, although you wouldn’t know it from most of the recent interpretations. Whedon’s film translates the action to suburban LA; the Old Vic’s production took place in the English countryside; the recent David Tennant version was set in a 1980s army base somewhere like Gibraltar; and even my cherished Branagh/Thompson romp unfolds among the vineyards of 19th-century Tuscany. This production at the Globe is the first I’ve seen which actually has a Sicilian flavour, and thus scored immediate Brownie points. The simple set is formed by a series of doors and screens with elaborate Arabic lattices, while vine garlands hang between the pillars overhead. The costumes mingle familiar 16th-century gowns and doublets with exotic robes and embroidered coats. Even Stephen Warbeck’s music has a plangent Arabic tremor to it. The whole production oozes southern Mediterranean charm.

In other versions, including the Branagh film, I’ve felt that Hero and Claudio suffer from being a stock romantic couple. Up against the sparky antagonism of Beatrice and Benedick, their romance and melodrama can feel a bit bland, but in this production Herrin and his cast have managed to give the two young lovers that little bit more personality. Hero (Ony Ihiara) becomes endearingly gauche and prone to snorting with laughter; while Philip Cumbus’s Claudio is self-conscious, a little over-enthusiastic and ever so slightly prickly. I found him more convincing than other Claudios I’ve seen, because here I could see the good, solid soldier whose passing is so mourned by Benedick when he complains about Claudio being sent silly by desire. Similarly, Ihiara is the first Hero I’ve seen who has a bit of gumption, rather than simply dissolving into hysterics when she is renounced (I always feel this is a very uncomfortable scene, especially if Hero makes no move to defend herself). Ihiara gives us a Hero who wants to do the right thing by her father, and who is deeply fond of Claudio, but nevertheless has the self-respect to stand up to Leonato and emphasise her innocence.

Unfortunately, while Hero and Claudio were a bit more interesting than usual, I didn’t really feel that Matthew Pidgeon had the chance to do anything new with his Don John (another character I often find problematic). He was a hit with the audience, because at the end of the day he’s a moustache-twirling stage villain, but after seeing the subtler approach to the character in Whedon’s film, I felt he was painted with rather broad strokes here, and spent most of his time striding around the stage shouting his wicked plans at the audience. As for Dogberry, I had mixed feelings. In the context of the slightly anarchic Globe, I enjoyed Paul Hunter’s clownish watchman, but I think he might have begun to grate if I’d seen him on stage anywhere else. The humour in his scenes was helped along by a clever running sight gag, which paired Hunter’s diminutive Dogberry with a towering sidekick in the form of his more intelligent neighbour Verges (Adrian Hood).

Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing

Beatrice (Eve Best), Margaret (Lisa McGrillis), Hero (Ony Uhiara) and Leonato (Joseph Marcell)

Beatrice and Benedick play off one another delightfully. Usually my sympathies are firmly with Beatrice, who finds herself up against the back-slapping laddishness of Don Pedro’s soldiers. This time, however, I warmed much more to Charles Edwards’s well-spoken Benedick, who shows surprising vulnerability. Although this Benedick arrives with a swagger and quips against marriage ready on his lips, there’s a real sense that he doth protest too much; and his change of heart towards Beatrice is tellingly swift. As with the other good Benedicks I’ve seen (David Tennant, particularly), Edwards has the audience completely under his spell: he teases them with ad-libs, stern glances and casual gestures.

While he was gentler than usual, Eve Best’s Beatrice took the opposite tack and ramped up the character’s feisty independence: there were times, actually, when she was slightly too strident for my tastes. But there’s no denying that she had splendid comic timing – the eavesdropping scenes, as always, were a joy, with Benedick caught up a ladder in an orange tree, and Beatrice trying to hide behind the laundry-line. And, even though she seemed to have a hard shell, Best let us see Beatrice’s soul once or twice, which made for some of the most touching moments in the play. Her speech about losing Benedick’s heart was dignified and wistful (“he lent it me a while, and I gave him use for it, a double heart for his single one”), and it cut through for a moment to the wounded hearts behind the frenzy of witty point-scoring.

This doesn’t quite takes the palm from Joss Whedon’s film, and Emma Thompson is still my ideal Beatrice; but it’s a fine traditional performance of the play, full of warmth, intelligence and spirit. Edwards is a hugely lovable Benedick and his connection with Best’s feisty Beatrice feels very natural: a huge cheer went up when she finally suffered herself to be kissed. It’s very depressing to see how much good stuff I’ve managed to miss at the Globe, but thank goodness for the theatre’s DVD series! Incidentally, fairly large chunks of this filmed performance are available on YouTube, so do take a stroll over and sample some of Act I for yourself to get a feel for the play.

Buy the DVD

Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing

Benedick (Charles Edwards) finally traps Beatrice (Eve Best)

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