Writer: Wiliam Shakespeare
Director: Christopher Luscombe
Soft lighting, dashing officers and droll big-house manners perfectly fit Shakespeare’s classic romantic comedy. Dripping with light and biting wit, the play shows us how sometimes we cannot see the wood for the trees when it comes to those closest to us and includes excellent comic interludes that balance the heavy themes of love and revenge served up through its 2hr 20 minute run time.
A story of mischief and malice, Christopher Luscombe’s production began life in Stratford in 2014 before playing in Chichester and London in 2016 and 2017. It forms a duo with Love’s Labour’s Lost (same cast, director and aesthetic, sadly not included on the iPlayer collection) and Much Ado was temporarily retitled Love’s Labour’s Won for the run.
The first play shows a carefree and indulgent life of the British moneyed upper class in the early 20th century, little else to concern the characters but the sport of courtship, chivalry and manners. It changes when death creeps into their world and the young men are called to war. Much Ado follows this – showing a return from the WWI trenches and the beginning of the end of that “big house” way of life. An altogether more serious vibe where a story about a longing for long-term love and stability can resonate.
This filmed version (from the 2014 production, with filming directed by Robin Lough) is shot luxuriously, fitting the gorgeous, detailed Edwardian country house set design from Simon Higlett. Allowing a new focus and intimacy to lie on the couples, and an examination of the villains, the filmed version opens up some new depths that were not revealed for an in-theatre audience. Allowing for movement in the point of view, mixing music for atmosphere and showing the set’s details gives a refreshed interpretation of an already excellent production.
Benedick is part of a company of soldiers, alongside Claudio and under the command of Don Pedro, returning from the front to a temporary convalescent hospital in a country house. The officers are welcomed by the host Leonato, who knows them well, and in the feasting and masked balls that follow we see love matches between Claudio and Leonato’s daughter Hero, as well as an attempt to reignite earlier flames of passion in Hero’s cousin Beatrice and Benedick. Not all is smooth sailing – with cruelty and lies from Don Pedro’s brother and a scheming valet all plans are put awry.
Edward Bennett as Benedick plays opposite Michelle Terry as Beatrice, a perfect pairing where near-visible flinty sparks from the clash of wits, as well as love, fly.
We’re let down a little by Hero and Claudio in this production, with a feeling that their heart just isn’t in it. Interestingly, Claudio’s failings as a character and as a man are brought out clearly on screen and Hero’s role as pawn between powerful men is laid bare in a similar fashion. Beyond Beatrice and Benedick (glorious, captivating performances from Terry and Bennett) the other key highlight is the bittersweet portrayal of Dogberry by Nick Haverson. Terrifically funny until he isn’t, suffering in the post-war haze with shell shock and stressful confusion. A superb injection of depth and resonance to the production that reminds us all what WWI actually meant, beyond the fripperies of dressing for dinner and having a fancy drawing room.
It’s worth watching for the set and costumery alone, and for a fine example of how a play with such bombastic, strong characters can produce elegant subtlety to touch the heart of an audience.
Streaming here until August 2020