Much Ado About Nothing - 25 & 26 April, St Mary’s Quad, St Andrews (3 stars)

Not Cricket & Pillowtalk Productions in association with Mermaids
On The Rocks arts festival

Directors Sam Fowles and Alice Jones promised an ‘original’ Much Ado. ‘While we would never dare to look outside such a wonderful script for inspiration,’ they explained, ‘we basically took this as something of a carte blanche to experiment.’ The production, in the sunny, outdoor setting of historic St Mary’s Quad, was – on the surface – experimental indeed. The programme displayed a Manga-esque illustration of two couples and a dragon, Chinese lanterns were strung around the Quad’s trees, and the male actors wore Japanese-print silk tunics (black for Don Jon, the villain). But what was the purpose of this flourish of Orientalism?, I wondered. As funny as it was, the Chinese dragon (inhabited by two actors) that came rollicking on during the masked revelry proved more an incongruous distraction than meaningful addition. No doubt the producers were trying to do something ‘exotic’ (perhaps to emphasise Messina’s post-war party atmosphere), but, for many, I suspect the language of Shakespeare – even in this prose-heavy play – is exotic enough.

The directors had ‘experimented’ with Much Ado on a deeper level, too. Shakespeare’s ‘fairytale ending’, in which a sweetly-submissive Hero re-accepts her fiancée Claudio, after he chastises her supposed infidelity (in fact a scheme of the evil bastard, Don John) then repents when this scheme is uncovered, does not, according to the directors, ‘ring entirely true for a modern audience’. A fair point, perhaps – though audiences medieval and modern have actually always tended to care more about the sub-plot’s wittier couple Beatrice and Benedick, who mock each other mercilessly before acknowledging their love.

I was disappointed, however, by what I thought might be an interesting feminist re-alignment. This Hero (Rachel Middle) was as sweet as ever, singing tunefully while she collected roses. I was told that, at the end, Hero’s feelings would be ‘left ambiguous’, but saw nothing but relieved acceptance in her final expressions. True, this production had a predominantly female court: Leonato, Hero’s father, became Leonata, her mother, and Antonio, Leonato’s brother, became Antonia. There was, consequently, a difference in atmosphere – the women sat around drinking Pimms and brushing one another’s hair – but Leonata was as angry at Hero’s apparent adultery, as ready to disown her, as any Leonato. Antonia (Emily Webb) was indeed defensive of Hero, and a female Dogberry (Louise Sands), the constable, gave Don John’s accomplice Borachio (Louis Rive) a good kick in the balls, but where it really mattered in this self-labelled ‘original’ interpretation, Borachio’s genitalia seemed the only thing re-aligned. If I hadn’t read the programme beforehand, (as I’m sure many hadn’t, chatting and spreading out picnic rugs as they were), I might not have noticed what were superficial feminist adjustments.

It was Beatrice and Benedick who – just as in conventional, un-‘experimental’ productions – really captured the audiences’ attention. Emily Macdonald was brilliantly witty and detached – just as any good Beatrice should be – and yet, when soliloquising, let down her guard to reveal a wistful, even vulnerable core (‘I know you of old’.). James Burgess’ comic timing was excellent. After he had decided Beatrice’s love for him ‘must be requited’ (a love which is of course entirely fabricated, part of Leonata’s matchmaking scheme, and one of which Beatrice is also unaware), Beatrice enters to tell him ‘Against my will I am sent to bid you come in to dinner.’. He thanks her for her pains, she reassures him, ‘if it had been painful, I would not have come’, and leaves. Alone, Benedick slowly, pensively repeats, ‘Against my will I am sent to bid you come in to dinner.’, pauses, then declares happily, ‘There’s a double meaning in that!’ Truly, timing is everything. There were several laugh-out-loud moments in this production (and not all involving Beatrice and Benedick), but too many potentially humorous lines were hurriedly delivered.

Aspects of the play were thoughtful and worked nicely. A small string ensemble and piano introduced scenes, assigning different groups of characters different musical themes – in the case of the incapable Dogberry and co., to comic effect. Yet, on balance, the ‘experimental’ elements of this production were weaker, and seemed less popular with the audience, than the good old, tried-and-tested formulas. Shakespeare, it seems, knew what he was doing after all.

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