DramaReviewShakespeareSouth West

Much Ado About Nothing – Tobacco Factory, Bristol

Writer: William Shakespeare

Designer: Jean Chan

Director: Elizabeth Freestone

Reviewer: Julia Beasley

Truth, lies and love are the eternal themes of Shakespeare’s witty comedy. How far can people be manipulated by misinformation? Can anyone ever be taken at their word? When can you trust someone enough to fall in love with them?

Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory’s take on this tale of trickery is fresh, radical and quite hilarious. Under the direction of Elizabeth Freestone, gender-blind casting allows strong female renditions of characters from nobles to mechanicals, soldiers and civilians, parents, cousins and lovers. The contemporary feel is  bolstered by costume, music and boozy dancing that are loud and raucously modern.

Feisty feminist Beatrice, surely one of Shakespeare’s best female roles, is polished by Dorothy Myer-Bennett. Also shining are performances from Louise Mai Newberry as Dogberry, the bumbling night watchman who speaks in malapropisms, and Georgia Frost as scheming soldier and ‘plain-dealing villain’ Don Jon.

The plot starts with a group of soldiers home from war. Home is Messina, a port in Sicily. Although their fighting days are behind them, they find that relationships in civilian life are also a battlefield. ‘Let me be that I am and seek not to alter me,’ is the plea of the soldier who resists assimilation.

Fat chance for those who seek love – including our hero and heroine, Beatrice and Benedick. Their playful, teasing banter is ‘a merry war, a skirmish of wit’. Eventually tricked by well-meaning comrades and family into confessing their love for each other, they are forced to recognise that their mocking mutual disdain was mere self-deception. ‘When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I would live till I was married,’ says a stunned Benedick.

But there are bad lies too, designed to have terrible consequences. On the darker side, Claudio is tricked by his malicious brother Don Jon into wrongly believing that his beloved Hero is promiscuous. So Claudio decides to expose Hero at the altar.

This is the point at which the play is sadly anachronistic for a 21st-century audience.  The public slut-shaming of Hero is unforgivable and should make Claudio an anti-hero. But Hero’s family inexplicably decide to pretend she has died of sorrow. They then set up a ‘fake’ wedding for Claudio– but lo and behold, the veiled bride turns out to be Hero herself. And that’s supposed to be a happy ending!

The marriage of Hero after such cruel misogynistic treatment is clearly a challenge to any modern director. Elizabeth Freestone has bravely embraced it as chiming with how brutally people are treated on social media. It’s the only discordant note in this harmonious and hugely entertaining production.

Reviewed on 18 October 2019. Runs until 9 November 2019 | Image: Contributed 

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Mark Clegg. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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