Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Conrad Nelson
Designer: Lis Evans
Musical Director: Rebekah Hughes
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
If you’re going to update Shakespeare, then it needs thinking through – costumes and hair-styles are not enough – and Northern Broadsides’ transference of Much Ado about Nothing to somewhere in England at the end of World War Two is a complete and highly entertaining make-over. RAF officers returning from the war, land-girls ready for a frolic, a Dad’s Army of watchmen seeking out sticks to get the wrong end of – it all fits, and it’s not difficult to shut your ears to the odd mention of Messina.
As with any Conrad Nelson production, music is a key element and there the period provides another bonus. Throughout the Andrews Sisters are never far away, right from the opening land-girls chorus of “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree”, with a nifty brass section bobbing up among the audience; “Sigh No More, Ladies” turns into a barbershop quartet; the final rumbustious dance is accompanied by what sounds like an Eric Coates march transformed.
The period also works well in terms of the characters. Robin Simpson’s trim airman, toothbrush moustache and all, is as convincing a Benedick as you will see and Don Pedro’s kindly authority is personified in Matt Rixon’s ramrod-straight senior officer. The relationship between the ladies, Beatrice and Hero, and their maids and gentlewomen in Much Ado is unusually informal and their transformation into land-girls, a democratic interlude in the old hierarchy, is a perfect fit.
Much Ado is described, somewhat optimistically, in the programme as “Shakespeare’s greatest romantic comedy” (Twelfth Night, anyone?), but its appeal lies partly in the potential for tragedy. Through the jolly japes of the merry war between Beatrice and Benedick and the conspiratorial wheezes of the others to bring them together, Nelson’s production is sunny and inventive, a rare feature being Benedick’s over-hearing from atop a ladder rather than behind a bush. However, Hero’s betrayal by Claudio after the schemings of Don John (Richard J. Fletcher unremittingly evil) is played straight, the poignancy only balanced by the Watch scenes, David Nellist’s Dogberry with the gait and dignity of Captain Mainwaring, if not his education.
Not the merriest of Beatrices, Isobel Middleton spars vigorously and wittily with Simpson’s pitch-perfect Benedick and gets full value from the drama of Hero’s disgrace. Linford Johnson’s Claudio and Sarah Kameela Impey’s Hero are rather overshadowed by the older couple, but their very youth is effective. Simeon Truby’s benign Leonato and Andrew Whitehead’s bumbling Antonio (neatly combined with Friar Francis) preside over a well-matched household.
Fifteen is a good-sized cast for Northern Broadsides and Stoke’s New Vic Theatre to put on the road, but Nelson and musical director Rebekah Hughes get full value from them: Anthony Hunt, for instance, is rather a good Borachio, but adds just as much with his trumpet-playing, and full marks, too, to a couple of a cappella ensembles.
Conrad Nelson is finally leaving Northern Broadsides after 27 years as actor/composer/director. This production of Much Ado proves he will be a hard act to follow.
Touring nationwide | Image: Nobby Clark