Lear will be returning later this summer, but for my first trip of 2014 to the outdoor theatre we have a new production: A take on probably the best-loved Shakespeare comedy, Much Ado About Nothing, that proves the most confident take yet on making a little go a long way. A regiment led by Don Pedro (Jim Kitson) rests after a battle, at the house of the wealthy Leonato (Robert Pickavance.) Soon the much-decorated young soldier Claudio (Sam Phillips) falls for Leonato's daughter - and sole heir - Hero (Gemma Lawrence.) A hasty marriage is arranged, but Don Pedro's brother Don John (Chris Starkie) has a number of plots in mind to spoil their nuptials, and which could even put their lives in danger.
As the title suggests there's a lot going on in Much Ado About Nothing, some of it deeply problematic, which means I've yet to see a production where everything works. Yet while Max Webster's production is no exception, it may be the best version of the play I've seen yet.
Minor quibbles out of the way first, and the play's biggest problem to a modern audience is Claudio, and his treatment of Hero. Phillips is a handsome, funny and likeable Claudio, which makes his later behaviour even harder to understand, and the audience's easy forgiveness of him uncomfortable. But as I've only ever once (on this same stage) seen Claudio even come close to making sense as a romantic lead, the fact that he doesn't here isn't something I can lay at Webster or Phillips' door. By contrast, Dogberry seems to be (for reasons I've never understood) one of the hardest Shakespeare clowns to pull off, but while Starkie's take on him isn't the funniest you'll see, his Glaswegian Dogberry doesn't fall into the common trap of overplaying the malapropisms.
That's as close as I can come to criticising a production that ticks every other box I can think of. It's genuinely funny, not just in the physicality that the company bring to it (like the National's production a few years back, this one comes up with a slapstick reason for Beatrice to catch the cold she has in the fourth act; although this explanation is, if anything, even sillier than Zoë Wanamaker's accidental dip in the pool) but in finding new ways to wring laughs out of lines I'm very familiar with by now.
Technically the secondary romantic plot, Benedick and Beatrice are the characters who overshadow Much Ado About Nothing, and who set the template for romantic comedy to this day. Simon Bubb and Emma Pallant are a very funny pair, but what I really didn't expect was how moved I'd be by them: Although I always enjoy the characters they've never made me well up before but Pallant and Bubb managed it, both when they admit their love to each other, and when they finally get together. Also, Bubb has to be hands down the sexiest Benedick ever.
I don't always have a lot to say about these cut-down productions because the small cast usually means they've got enough work to do just getting the story told, but here the limitations barely registered. The only noticeable thing about the cast doubling was that having Joy Richardson play both Margaret and Borachio means a major plot point hinges on one of the actors having sex with herself; and Antonio's lines being given to Margaret means she's on stage a lot for us to wonder at her not understanding her own accidental role in John's plot. But other than that the edits are effective and barely noticeable, the characterisation sharp, and the production a joy. Last year Vanessa and I were at a Much Ado so bad we couldn't stand to return after the interval; I'm happy to report she accompanied me again (along with her daughter) to a production that reaffirmed our faith in the play and then some. Absolutely recommended, if the Globe even comes close to matching it this year we'll be in for one hell of a season.
Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare is booking in repertory until the 19th of May at Shakespeare's Globe; then continuing on tour to Brighton, Parham, Worthing, Salisbury, Calderstones Mansion House, Dumfries, Lincoln, Austria, Herstmonceux Castle, Norwich, Hedingham, Ripon, Kronborg and Kilkenny.
Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.