Much Ado About Nothing – Gray’s Inn Hall, London

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director:Ben Horslen

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

How can you improve on Shakespeare? Every summer as the same two comedies are attempted by countless Companies, everyone is looking for something fresh. Earlier this year, The Faction achieved it with a dark and finely-balanced production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and now Antic Disposition brings their touring version of Much Ado About Nothing to London, drawing on the physical comedy of French director Jacques Tati.

Set immediately after the Second World War, a group of soldiers return to the Place de Messina to stay with their friend Leonato. Determined to marry his daughter Hero, Claudio is accepted but is soon caught up in a dastardly deception. Meanwhile, fellow-soldier and determined bachelor Benedick falls for the sharp-tongued Beatrice, and their friends look for a way to bring them together.

A comedy on the surface, Much Ado About Nothing has some incredibly shocking moments which stun the audience. Full of schemes, deception and deliberate misdeeds, the plot is propelled by the creation of scandal and the subsequent resolution of tension among the lovers. Antic Disposition’s new interpretation retains some of those elements but drowns their intensity with a more farcical approach to the rest of the story that strains Shakespeare’s comedy to its limits.

The post-war Parisian setting is both clever and suitable, it fits the psychology of the play well, bringing a group of recently embattled soldiers into the warm and celebratory world of Leonato and his female household. Director Ben Horslen uses this to create a party atmosphere at the start, full of relief and joy, allowing love and conviviality to grow naturally between the two quite different groups.

But as the production unfolds and Shakespeare’s text is slashed to the minimum, the inclusion of vignettes inspired by Tati’s style of comedy become increasingly jarring. Considerable time is given over at the start of each half and between scenes to extended slapstick sections involving a café waiter and some local peasants who, seemingly, have nothing to do with the central story. Tablecloths get stuck in back pockets and hands become stuck to the backs of varnished chairs, but not one bit of it sheds any light on Much Ado About Nothing. Only later do these characters evolve into “The Watch”.

The core story also becomes increasingly muddled, often not finding quite the right balance between seriousness and comedy. The genuine bitterness with which Nicholas Ormond’s Benedick and Chiraz Aich’s Beatrice address one another leaves very little room for affection to grow, the gentle sparring that should eventually lead to self-realisation. As a result, their scorn-filled interactions lack romantic chemistry and credibility.

Ormond fairs much better in the male-dominated scenes in which Claudio (Alexander Varey) and Don Pedro (Theo Landey) goad Benedick into action. The comic interplay between them is nicely handled, leading to some of the production’s best scenes. Varey’s Claudio has a more military bearing than often seen, bringing genuine rage and bile to the wedding section – enough to make you question why Hero would ever take him back after such humiliation – while Landey is a commanding presence with a feel for the rhythm and lyricism of the lines.

In a multi-national cast, the contrasting female scenes have less clarity and the French actors struggle to make themselves heard as they talk over one another, giggle and drown their words. Aich’s Beatrice is a constant blaze of fury, delivering her lines with a pace that loses all nuance and sometimes diction, eliciting laughter from the “kill Claudio” line when it should only draw gasps, while Floriane Andersen’s Hero is sweet but less broken or incensed by Claudio’s slur than she should be.

‘Shakespeare himself famously disliked actors changing his scripts’ the programme notes explain, ‘so we can only hope that he’s a little more relaxed after four hundred years.’ This hybrid Shakespeare-Tati approach is most successful when it draws out the harsher aspects of Shakespeare’s story, but tries too hard to make it funny. Horslen has cast members, apparently, in intimate conversation, bellow at each other from opposite ends of the traverse stage which distracts from the intricate conspiracies to create and destroy love.

Runs Until:1 September 2018 | Image: Scott Rylander

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