Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Lucy Bailey
Stealing a march on the National’s version opening in July, Lucy Bailey’s 1940s inspired Much Ado About Nothing is the The Globe’s first show in this year’s summer season. While set in 1945 just before the allies liberated Italy, Bailey’s version tells us nothing about the end of the Second World War, but instead seems an excuse for some exquisite ‘40s fashion. It all looks wonderful under the setting sun, and complements perfectly Shakespeare’s crowd-pleaser.
The gulling scenes, where Benedick and Beatrice listen in to conversations that they don’t realise are staged, can make or break any Much Ado. While not as funny as an earlier National production that had Zoë Wanamaker and Simon Russell Beale eavesdropping around a swimming pool, Bailey sets her gulling in an Italian garden with hilarious results. Benedick climbs a rose trellis before disguising himself as a gardener while Beatrice becomes entangled in a volleyball net, so eager are both to hear what the other thinks of them. And The Globe audience loves the slickly performed slapstick.
Benedick is first introduced to us a Mr Darcy figure announcing ‘I am loved of all ladies’ as he unbuttons his shirt. Ralph Davis cuts a very dashing figure as the confirmed bachelor despairing of marriage and will never ‘thrust thy neck into a yoke.’ But Davis’s Benedick is a loveable rogue, and not really a ladies man at all. From the off, he only has eyes for Beatrice. He is as loyal as a puppy.
As Beatrice, Lucy Phelps is equally as endearing, and even as she ridicules the idea of marriage and men in general, we still warm to her and her strong-willed persona. She speaks her mind in a very modern manner and yet there’s humour in nearly everything she says. With great comic timing she lifts her eyes pompously to heaven to say that when she dies St Peter will show her where all the bachelors sit. And there she will join them, unmarried, forever.
When they do finally get together, it seems the most natural union in the world. But their love story does not overshadow the other relationship in the play, that of Hero and Claudio. Played by Nadi Kemp-Sayfi and Patrick Osborne, the two young lovers do well with Shakespeare’s shift into tragedy, and the whole wedding scene runs like an Italian soap opera. But Osborne’s Claudio is ultimately a hard character to forgive.
Also making the play feel a little melodramatic is Bailey’s decision to change Hero’s father Leonato into her mother Leonata. Katy Stephens excels in this role, and her Italian Mother routine, sometimes humorously falling into stereotype, adds a new dimension to the play, pitting Don Pedro and his brother Don John against a community of women, complete with five female accordion players. When Leonata wishes Hero dead, there are real gasps from the audience. Stephens is such a powerful force on stage that it feels like her play.
But getting the most laughs of the evening is George Fouracres’ bumbling policeman Dogberry. Fouracres’ Hamlet may have divided critics earlier this year, but here he is cast down to a tee, absorbing Leonata’s insults with a smile reminiscent of a character in wartime sitcom ‘Allo ‘Alllo! His comic appearances balance the odd mix of genres that makes this Shakespeare play sometimes one hard to pull off.
Joanna Parker’s design that has the stage decked in Astroturf looks gloriously late-summer under the Globe lights even though in April the nights are still cold. But there’s enough energy and warmth on stage to compensate.
Runs until 23 October 2022