Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Roy Alexander Weise
Much Ado About Nothing follows two couples’ treacherous road to happiness. Soldiers Benedick and Claudio return in triumph under Don Pedra (gender-swapped in this production from the original Don Pedro). They stay with Leonato, father of Beatrice and uncle of Hero. Leonato confides that ‘There is a kind of merry war’ between Benedick and Beatrice and so it turns out as they tease one another mercilessly. Any watcher of RomCom will immediately tell that they are destined to be together, one just has to see what mechanism Shakespeare will use to overcome their apparent loathing of the institution of marriage and allow each to recognise their feelings for the other.
The story of Claudio and Hero is rather more involved; we learn that Claudio has had feelings for Hero before and these are reignited. Following confusion at a masked ball, Claudio and Hero are betrothed. In this production, Claudio and Hero are played with some naivety as they appear younger and less worldly than Benedick and Beatrice. As events unfold, one can’t help asking is it Hero who Claudio truly desires or has his head been turned by the fact that she is Leonato’s sole heir and hence potentially very valuable? Don John, Don Pedra’s brother, clearly has his eye on her potential as he tricks Claudio into believing Hero is impure, leading Claudio to denounce her publicly. Her reputation in shreds, the only way out for Hero and her reputation seems to be to pretend to be dead while others seek evidence to clear her name. But even in the midst of his grief for the vindicated Hero, Claudio readily agrees to marry, sight unseen, her ‘cousin’ who is similarly wealthy and ‘almost the copy of’ Hero. To his credit, he does hesitate (slightly) at the wedding before this stranger is revealed, of course, to be Hero.
This is a colourful and brash interpretation by Roy Alexander Weise. Jemima Robinson’s simple set has a childlike futuristic feel to it, almost reminiscent of the Portmeirion of The Prisoner. The cast is comprised almost entirely of black actors and Melissa Simon-Hartman’s costumes are extravagant and brightly coloured with more than a nod to African motifs. When songs are called for, the live music and dance owe much to more contemporary styles from jazz forwards to street and are impeccably executed.
Akiya Henry’s Beatrice is full of sass in her exchanges with Benedick (Luke Wilson), occasionally (along with other characters) flipping into street patois which only serves to reinforce her individuality. Henry is a powerful presence whenever she is on stage providing a feeling of jeopardy in her quick wit and unpredictableness. Wilson is stolid as Benedick, he nevertheless holds his own in the exchanges with Beatrice and, later with Claudio.
Mohammed Mansaray brings a brittle vulnerability to the posturing Claudio: his despair when he believes Hero untrue is clearly telegraphed, as are the even greater depths when he realises he has falsely accused her and driven her to her death. Mansaray’s Claudio desperately wants to be a man, but, at least to modern eyes, he has some way to go. Taya Ming brings a similar vulnerability to Hero. We can be confident that her feelings, at least, are genuine and her despair as her world collapses around her is clear.
It’s not entirely clear why Don Pedra has been cast as a woman in this production, played by Ann Ogbomo. It certainly casts a different light on her offer to help Claudio at the masked ball by wooing Hero on his behalf – a slightly strange offer in any case, with Claudio’s ready acceptance planting early seeds of doubt as to his veracity – but otherwise does not seem, of itself, to add to the narrative. Nevertheless, Ogbomo’s Don Pedra is suitably imperious and worldly-wise, with her company’s best interests at heart – as she sees them at any time.
After the interval, we are also introduced to the constable, Dogberry (Karen Henthorn), and her troupe of inept officers, with more than a nod to the Night Watch of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. They are quite hilarious in their incompetent self-importance and wildly OTT uniforms and provide welcome pure comedy whenever they are on stage. And, of course, quite by chance, provide the evidence that Hero is innocent.
This is a brash and colourful Much Ado that fuses cultures with never a dull moment; it comes highly recommended.
Runs Until 12 March 2022