Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Conrad Nelson
Reviewer: Jo Beggs
If there was ever a worry that Northern Broadsides would lose its Broadsides-ness after the departure of founder and true actor-manager Barrie Rutter, then their production ofMuch Ado About Nothing is here to remind us all of just what they stand for. After twenty-five years at the helm, Rutter departed the company last year, leaving his big shoes for long-time collaborator Conrad Nelson to fill.
There was never really any doubt that Nelson would continue to create the highly accessible theatre that Rutter had made the company’s trademark, uncomplicated productions of Shakespeare plays with a bold northern twist. In these days of classics on the big screen and an increasing need to broaden audiences, it’s easy to forget that twenty years ago, a huge amount of Shakespeare was still delivered in grand proclamation and clipped RP, but the fact that others have followed where Rutter led doesn’t detract from the company’s uniqueness. They have a niche – and it’s a good one.
Of course, northern accents are just part of the story. Northern Broadside-ness is really about the incredibly light touch that the company have brought to Shakespeare, the perfect balance of reverence and pragmatism that has always been at the heart of the company’s success. That magic came from Rutter, and so easily could have been lost, but he was clearly around long enough for it to permeate the company’s very bones.
Nelson’s Much Ado About Nothing is a pantomimic romp. Set at the end of World War Two, the excitement of returning home to the girls they left behind makes the men nothing short of giddy. What they find, though, is working women, less likely to take any of their foolishness, and meddling men who have nothing better to do than play games and spread rumours.
At the centre of all the romantic goings-on are the young and love-struck Claudio (Linford Johnson) and Hero (Sarah Kameela Impey) and the older, but no less impulsive, Beatrice (Isobel Middleton) and Benedick (Robin Simpson) who claim they would “rather die than ever show sign of affection” for one another. It’s the middle-aged lovers that steal all the laughs in this brilliantly funny production. Beatrice’s conflicted feelings are conveyed with easy grace by Middleton and Simpson delivers comic turns aplenty, especially when speaking to, or making eye contact with, the audience. He’s a delight to watch.
The play is full of comic banter and Nelson squeezes every last gossipy drop out of it. There’s also lots of contemporary relevance in the danger of spreading, and believing, fake news, the belief in ‘honourable men’ who can, above others, be trusted. Nelson makes sure than none of this goes unnoticed. Shakespeare comedies can sometimes feel a little purposeless, particularly in comparison to the tragedies, so it’s good to see pretty much everything wrung out in this production.
The multi-talented cast add a little musical spin to things with live music and acapella singing. This could be punchier at times, particularly at the start of the show where it seems to take them time to warm up, but it adds energy and fun to the whole thing. Like all plays with songs, the audience gets a bit confused about whether they should clap at the end of one, and this sometimes interferes with the flow.
The production’s design is something of a jumble sale mess. The set is both over-designed and badly made, much of it (portraits of the characters, sandbags, signs to northern towns, ladders) under- or unused. There’s a badly made synthetic fabric backdrop showing a northern landscape that seems out of place and completely pointless. Costumes are somewhat better, giving historical context and, to some extent, defining quirks of character.
“Man is a giddy thing” says Benedick at the end of the play. A fine assessment of human character that reminds us not to take things too seriously. Northern Broadsides take Shakespeare and do just that with it.
Runs until 11 May 2019 | Image: Nobby Clark