Much Ado About Nothing
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Matthew Dunster
Reviewer: Tom Baker
Turns out, a Latin setting makes for good Shakespeare. It was true for West Side Story, and it’s true for this new production of Much Ado About Nothing at The Globe, which moves the action from the Messina of the text to revolutionary-era Mexico. Director Matthew Dunster’s new staging comes after the controversy regarding Emma Rice’s flouting of original practice and subsequent removal as the theatre’s artistic director after the end of her first year in the role.
In convincing the Globe’s board to dump Rice, many have got what they wanted as the theatre will strip away the artificial lighting rigs and move back to shared light productions, but nothing about the already-planned Summer Season can be changed. So why not simply lean into the backlash? Which is exactly what Dunster and his cast do. In this reading, Don Pedro returns from battle with his companions Benedick and Claudio, all of them dressed in ponchos, cowboy boots, and “riding” brilliantly conceived wire-mesh horses whilst on stilts.
Hero, daughter of their host Leonato, takes the fancy of the latter. The former, meanwhile, had a tryst with Leonato’s niece Beatrice before parting on bad terms, leaving them instead with an antagonistic relationship full of snide sniping. Upon realising the burgeoning romance between each would-be couple, Pedro enlists members of Leonato’s court to them together with a couple of convoluted schemes which, somewhat inevitably, don’t go according to plan.
There are stetsons, moustaches, and colourful embroidered huipil dresses, Spanish is spoken freely, mariachi music is played, and comic relief Dog Berry (a scene-stealing Ewan Wardrop) is recast as a feckless American documentary maker in jodhpurs trying to corral the locals in front of his camera. The change in location and costuming are significant in their deviation from the text, but the words more or less remain the same. Which makes it all the more surprising that this version of Much Ado is so fresh, fun and alive.
Matthew Needham’s alternation between pathos and bathos as Benedick is a goofy delight. His childish sulking makes a perfect foil to Beatriz Romilly’s self-possessed Beatrice, who can’t get out the most passing compliment to her old flame without audibly gagging. Unlike many stagings, however, it’s made clear that the bickering between the pair comes from sublimation: both harbour hurt feelings from the terms they parted on, and the occasional moments of real emotion glimpsed between their glibness makes their returning romance more palatable than your average “these guys hate each other, but actually they love each other!” interpretation.
The central couple get most of the best laugh-lines but Sarah Seggari, pulling double duty as both Hero’s bolshy lady-in-waiting Margaret and Dogberry’s assistant Verges, deserves to be singled out for her precision comic timing. Also, everyone is beautiful, naturally. As with the other productions during this unusually daring season for the Globe, there is a fair amount of gender-blind casting (Don Pedro’s “Bastard Prince” brother becomes a sister, Juana) and a suitably mixed-race ensemble.
The costume department, meanwhile, has outfitted the actors in era and country-appropriate clothing, without lapsing into student themed party cliche, and gunshots abound, whether fired into the air to prove a point or at a line of tin cans to show off. The action all takes place around, in, and on top of a railway boxcar, atop which also sits a band who play both an incidental score and the soundtrack to the several wonderful dance sequences (a holdover from Rice’s Kneehigh Theatre days). And, yes, there’s plenty of artificial lighting to set the mood.
In concert with the performances, all of this stagecraft – and this was always the intent behind the artistic director’s “radical” changes – make Dunster’s production one of the most truly populist, and purely entertaining, stagings of Much Ado in recent memory.
Runs until: October 15th 2017 at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre