THEATRE REVIEW: Bell Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing is Shakespeare De-classroomified
I might just be a nerd (ok, I’ve accepted that I am undoubtedly one), but one of the things that gave me a considerable amount of joy in high school was trawling over the book lists for English Literature at the beginning of the year to see which Shakespeare play we would be delving through. It didn’t take me too long to realise that not everyone shared my organic passion for the British bard, but here’s the thing: they still would have loved Bell Shakespeare’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing.
I know this because I took along exhibit A of a Shakespeare-reluctant specimen to the opening night I had the privilege of attending: my boyfriend, who usually looks at theatre in a way that is reminiscent of a frazzled teenager being passed a baby “just to watch for a minute.” Within ten minutes, he was in stitches.
The often seemingly-indecipherable language of Shakespeare is undoubtedly the biggest barrier to drawing younger audiences, which elevates the importance of presenting it in a way that is accessible. Cue the direction of James Evans: his vision for a hip, modern rendition of this play centred around a couple of sharp-tongued reluctant lovers and packed with gender politics and social commentary centuries ahead of its time has proved a masterful mechanism of translation.
(Photos by Clare Hawley)
It doesn’t hurt to have a cast brimming with talent (side note: it seems as though every actor in Bell Shakespeare is a full-fledged triple threat?). Zindzi Okenyo as Beatrice and Duncan Ragg as Benedick make for a hilariously quick-witted duo on stage, with some of the greatest dialogue in drama flying across the stage in combat. These encounters are not only a source of entertainment, however: they expose fundamental flaws in how masculinity has been heralded for much of history. This is further pressed by the double standards made evident by the parallel love story between Claudio (Will McDonald) and Hero (Vivienne Awosoga), the latter of whom is jeopardised by an accusation questioning her chastity.
The feminist dynamic is heightened by the gender switching of some of the key roles. The original ‘brother’ of Leonato (David Whitney), Antonio, was changed from ‘brother’ to ‘sister’ with the casting of Suzanne Pereira, although unfortunately I was unable to see this dynamic casting in play as Pereira had fallen ill last minute, and was replaced by director Evans himself (in what I might add was an excellent eleventh hour covering of the role). The great comic character of Dogberry was played by Mandy Bishop in a gender-fluid role that allowed the unbridled humour of the character’s lines to be put in the spotlight irrespective of gender.
The set is elegantly simple, allowing for the physicality of Bell Shakespeare’s choreographed, at times bordering-on-stage-show adaptation of As You Like It to show itself off, and also to logistically provide for the hectic national touring schedule of the production. The costumes are sleek and have a holiday-esque vibe to them. The daytime aesthetics certainly do not disappoint, amplified by gorgeous night-time disco lit sequences.
Much Ado About Nothing is beautiful to watch, hilarious to follow, and like all great theatre, gives you cause to think: both about the play and the world around us. This is Shakespeare de-classroomified: modern, relevant and romantic comedy at the top of its game.