It’s been eight years since Bell Shakespeare tackled Much Ado. Eight years in which our world has spun hard under that of the play.
We tend to think of the story as that of Benedick and Beatrice, two commitment-phobic singletons waging a “merry war” of words until they drop their guards and open themselves to love. On that level, Much Ado can come across as the most accessible and modern of Shakespeare’s plays.
But it’s the play’s parallel plot – one that hinges on the virtuous Hero’s humiliation at the altar by the easily swayed Claudio – that catches a modern day audience off-guard. The dread of cuckoldry and dishonour exhibited in a 16th century story inevitably reads like toxic male behaviour and shaming.
Directed by James Evans, this production does its best to balance the bitter and the sweet of the text and highlight the hypocrisies of its male characters. It also attempts to rebalance the play by casting women in several male roles. Suzanne Pereira is Antonio, for example, also the Friar. Mandy Bishop doubles as the clownish constable Dogberry and the singing attendant Balthasar.
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This is Bell Shakespeare’s nationally touring show and after months on the road, it’s as certain of itself as it can ever be. Yet it still takes an uncomfortable while for the production to snap into focus.
In the early scenes, the majority of the laughter comes from the characters themselves, whose chuckling between lines brings to mind the canned laughter of a TV sitcom and presumably has the same function: to convince the audience that what they are seeing is actually funny.
The world of the play isn’t strongly developed, either. Pip Runciman’s design (which has to fit into a tour truck and many theatres of different sizes) is dominated by what looks like a giant shower curtain and the kind of brushed steel planters you see in airports.
Evans’ production finds its feet before interval, however, thanks to some appealing comic work from Duncan Ragg, whose Benedick grows as he distances himself from the pack mentality typified by Danny Ball’s cocksure Don Pedro.
Zindzi Okenyo is surefooted and sharp as Beatrice. Vivienne Awosoga (in her first mainstage role post drama school) is a poised and eloquent Hero.
Zipping around on a scooter, Bishop’s Dogberry is a rowdily interesting creation that earns at least a couple of rounds of applause. Elsewhere, the play’s slapstick elements aren’t nearly so well developed or sold. David Whitney does some sterling work as Leonato, Hero’s father. Will McDonald is a suitably callow Claudio.
Bell Shakespeare has created a production of broad appeal for the diverse audience it encounters on the road, many of whom will be meeting Much Ado – and Shakespeare, too, perhaps – for the first time. Any deeper investigation of this most thorny of Shakespeare’s comedies seems a secondary consideration.