Saturday, 29 July 2017

Theatre review: Much Ado About Nothing (Shakespeare's Globe)

Lots of hey! but no nonnny nonny in the Globe's latest Much Ado About Nothing, as Matthew Dunster takes the play's opening, with soldiers returning triumphant from a battle, as his cue to set the action during the Mexican Revolution in 1914. A group of fighters take a break at the home of Leonato (Martin Marquez,) where young soldier Claudio (Marcello Cruz - Hispanic Daniel Radcliffe, amirite?) falls for Leonato's daughter Hero (Anya Chalotra.) As the soldiers wait for the wedding to be hastily arranged, they amuse themselves by tricking the battling exes Benedick (Matthew Needham) and Beatrice (Beatriz Romilly) into getting back together, by convincing each that the other is desperately in love with them.

But while everyone's distracted they fail to notice the villainous Juana (Jo Dockery) attempt to sabotage the wedding by falsely accusing Hero of sleeping around.

This is a good Much Ado, not a great one: It hits a lot of the right comic notes and finds a few new and interesting interpretations, but its most famous comic couple is far from a classic pairing. Maybe I've been spoilt by seeing a couple of my all-time favourite Beatrices in this venue, but Romilly never really captures her spark; her tendency to mime lines out with her hands to explain the joke was never going to endear her to me either. Needham is a lot better, with the right mix of goofiness and underlying honourable nature to make a strong Benedick, but the two don't have much chemistry, which loses much of the heart of the play.

Chalotra gives a bit of fire to the underwritten Hero, while Cruz is a sweet Claudio - which is of course a problem, since it makes his vicious about-turn in the second half even more problematic, but I'm well past blaming the actor playing him for this; Philip Cumbus on this same stage is the only actor I've seen manage to make Claudio make sense so it's clearly a problem with the play itself. Another tricky character, although it's less clear why, is the clown Dogberry (Ewan Wardrop.) Dunster's idea is to make him an American filmmaker documenting the revolution, and his famous malapropisms caused by his broken Spanish. The conceit is that when he speaks in an American accent he's speaking English, and an English accent is his attempt to speak to the locals, but since the vast majority of his lines are the latter it doesn't come across that well, while having Verges (Sarah Seggari) correct every single mistake drags the scenes out. It's far from being one of those disastrous Dogberrys who are weirdly common, but the subplot adds nothing to the show.

As part of the current Globe regime's 50/50 gender split rule, gender-flipping Don John to Juana works inasmuch as her villainy is a reaction to the way men have treated her, although it does beg the question of why she would then come up with a plot that most harms an innocent young woman. Better is the change of Antonio to Antonia, Doreene Blackstock giving a nicely fiery moment in her challenge to the men who wronged her niece. On the other hand I almost cheered when Seggari's Margaret tried to interject and was silenced when Hero is falsely accused - far too many productions have her happily picking her arse in the background while she listens to a story she could very easily disprove.

Where this is an undoubted triumph is in Anna Fleischle's designs, from the goods train that's the main feature of the set, to the details in the costumes and the little island in the yard that becomes Hero's tomb, this looks great and gives a whole new and unique feel to the Globe. The simple conceit used to represent actors "on horseback" works surprisngly well, although it's best in small doses - when it gets used extensively in a long scene it soon becomes awkward and funny in the wrong way. For the most part the production's Mexican setting just about steers clear of caricaturing, although Steve John Shepherd's cigar-chomping, cackling, pistol-shooting-into-the-sky Don Pedro is a greasy Mexican bandit straight out of a Spaghetti Western. Visually, this is a Much Ado that'll be memorable; in other respects it's a solid one but not a classic.

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare is booking in repertory until the 15th of October at Shakespeare's Globe.

Running time: 3 hours including interval.

Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.

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