Review – Much Ado About Nothing, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 24th September 2022

Much Ado About NothingFunny how things work out. In the same way that every pantomime I expect to see this Christmas will be Jack and the Beanstalk (London Palladium, Sheffield Lyceum, Royal and Derngate Northampton, etc), every other Shakespeare production this summer has been Much Ado About Nothing – RSC, National Theatre, and now here at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, with a co-production with Ramps on the Moon. Its Sheffield run closed on Saturday, but we were lucky enough to get tickets for its final day. You’ll be pleased to know, gentle reader, that there is a UK tour to follow so you still have a chance to see it!

Much Ado - BalthasarWe were part of a big family outing, some of whom pronounce Much Ado to be their favourite Shakespeare play. I must confess that over the decades I have slowly come around to the belief that this is one of his better shows – but it has taken me a long time to get there. Perhaps I’ve just seen some not-so-good productions in the past, because the storyline never remains in my brain for long and I frequently get confused when I watch it. However, not this time; Robert Hastie’s production tells the story clearly, humorously, and, as I think it will turn out to be, memorably. After all these years, I finally “got it”!

Richard-Peralta-and-the-Company-of-Much-Ado-About-Nothing.-Photo-by-Johan-Persson.-scaledWhat makes this production stand out is the diverse mix of actors who make up the cast, including disabled, deaf and neurodiverse performers as well as non-disabled actors. It’s a production for everyone; it’s made very clear at the beginning of the performance that if any audience member wants to get up, move around, or do anything else that will help them enjoy the performance, they are welcome to do so. All the cast introduce themselves to the audience at the start, explaining who their character is, how they are dressed, and how they will communicate: some of the cast speak their lines, others sign them, or do a blend of signing and speech. The whole production is captioned as well; it’s a veritable feast of communication!

Much Ado - the hoedownIt’s set in the modern era – in Messina, allegedly, but it could be anywhere that’s reasonably well off. Leonato, the Governor of the province, has a very nice pad with what we suspect is a lovely conservatory at the back of the stage that leads out into the garden, where “much ado” takes place. There’s a charming start to the show as the various members of the cast congregate in the conservatory, only for Don Pedro (Dan Parr, excellent) to realise that whilst they’re inside looking out, we’re all sitting outside looking in at him and his friends, so he leads the cast out onto the stage with a friendly hiya. Yes, you might say this production probably isn’t for purists, but then again, Much Ado is hardly likely to tease out many purists from the general theatregoing public.

Members-of-the-Company-of-Much-Ado-About-Nothing.-Photo-by-Johan-Persson.-scaledHastie’s vision for this production, apart from the general intention to make it as accessible as possible, is to bring out the classic scenes for maximum emotional or humorous impact. For example, everyone loves those favourite scenes where both Benedick and Beatrice overhear talk that the other one is rapturously in love with them. Here, in a hilarious scene, Don Pedro, Claudio and Leonato all receive professional massages whilst ostentatiously chit-chatting about Beatrice’s love for Benedick, who ends up hiding underneath one of the massage tables. In her equivalent scene, Beatrice hides in a few vacant seats in the stalls to overhear Hero, Margaret and Ursula’s gossip about Benedick’s love for her. It’s all lightly, beautifully and believably done, right down to Beatrice’s involuntary outburst of Oh Shit! when she discovers the news and realises that she has to act upon it.

Much Ado - ClaudioBut there are plenty of dark moments in Much Ado – life really isn’t just a bowl of cherries. Are they able to carry off the serious aspects of the play with the same aplomb as the comedy? As it happens, yes. The simple force of Beatrice’s forthright delivery of her instruction to Benedick to “Kill Claudio” has the effect of sending a shudder right through your bones. Taku Mutero’s Claudio changes from being a wet-behind-the-ears romantic sop into a furious brute when Hero’s alleged infidelity is revealed; he certainly knows how to spoil a party. Gerard McDermott’s avuncular Leonato, too, switches from being a rather lovable old sot into a nobleman humiliated and offended by his daughter, dismissing any sense of affection or trust in her. And Claire Wetherall’s Hero herself is remarkably eloquent in her silence – she signs all her lines; somehow it makes her plight even more tragic and unjust.

Much Ado - Dogberry and VergesThere are a few modernisations to the text that work really well – re-imagining Dogberry and Verges as Wedding Planners is a stroke of genius, and both Caroline Parker and Lee Farrell bring terrific characterisation to the roles. There’s a brilliant sequence when Dogberry threatens the villainous Borachio and Conrade (terrifically played by Benjamin Wilson and Ciaran Stewart) with an assault by hydrangeas and hops – you had to be there. There are a few other delightful throwaway moments – for example, when Seacole (the excellent Amy Helena) signs a passionate description of two lovers, Benedick is forced to remark “a bit graphic, Seacole!” to much hilarity.

Much Ado - Benedick and BeatriceOf course, so much of Much Ado revolves around the presentation of the main duo, Benedick and Beatrice, and both Guy Rhys and Daneka Etchells put in terrific performances. There’s no question that this B and B have both seen a bit of the world and are nobody’s fools; they’re past pandering to anyone else’s whims and just in it for their own self-protection. Mr Rhys is hilarious as he coyly relaxes on a massage bed, accidentally-on-purpose letting a bit of leg show to boost up Beatrice’s interest in him; and Ms Etchells has a range of fantastic facial expressions, as well as a powerful confident delivery, that leave you in no doubt as to Beatrice’s state of mind at any given point.

Much Ado - Borachio and ConradeIn a production such as this, with perhaps more people on stage at a time than you might expect, visually it does occasionally get a little messy. There were a few blocking issues, and I felt that one or two of the actors underperformed at times. But there’s no doubting the sheer joy of the production and its extraordinary sense of freshness and liberty. Now that it’s done its time at Sheffield, the production is on the road, visiting Leeds, Birmingham, Nottingham, Ipswich, Stratford East, and Salisbury. Not sure I’ve ever seen a production quite like it! Hugely rewarding, and great storytelling.

Production photos by Johan Persson

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – Much Ado About Nothing, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 25th February 2022

Much Ado About NothingYou know how you wait two years for a bus and then three all come along at once? This is the fate of Much Ado About Nothing for 2022. Not only has it been chosen as the opening “Big Play” for the RSC at the beginning of the year, but there’s also a production by Simon Godwin coming at the National Theatre this summer and in September we’re seeing a production by Robert Hastie at the Crucible in Sheffield. But then it is an enduringly popular play and there’ll always be a demand for it.

BenedickMichael Balogun, who was originally cast as Benedick, withdrew from the play days before Press Night which has played a spot of havoc with the timings for its reviews. But if we have learned nothing else from the pandemic, it’s that the show must go on. And there’s no doubt about it, it’s a fascinating production. If you are a loyal reader of my random jottings, you’ll know that one of my  watchwords is that I much prefer a brave failure to a lazy success. And this is one of those occasions. Yes, for the most part, this production fails to deliver on many levels. But, my word, does it put in a brave attempt to do so, and does it have a lot of fun getting there!

Claudio Leonato and HeroSet in some kind of futuristic otherworld, traditionally this play takes place in Messina, but this dramatis personae has been no nearer Italy than an outer space Pizza Express. This is a world of glowing orbs, fanciful fruits, swirly benches and magic blackboards. No extravagance is understated in the set or the costumes, with outrageous headdresses, topiaried hairdos, gold-emblazoned tabards, a Robocop-style constabulary and formal white wellies. Hero’s wedding dress resembles a huge butterfly, while Beatrice frequently reminds you that the spirit of Xena Warrior Princess is not dead. Facial make-up includes enough glitter, swirls and highlights to make Adam Ant look like a funeral director. Characters appear descending from the Flies or via a floral walkway. It’s as though Shakespeare has been taken over by The Magic Roundabout with Ermyntrude and Zebedee as the bickering lovers.

Aruna Jalloh and Adeola YemitanDone wrong, this could look cheap, tacky and ridiculous. But it’s a huge credit to Jemima Robinson’s set and Melissa Simon-Hartman’s costume design that it comes across as innovative, luxurious and aspirational. Imagine going on holiday to this futuristic playground – you’d be on a permanent high! Femi Temowo’s accompanying music is cleverly pitched, near-outrageous, and frequently off-putting; a kind of louche jazz that suggests a whole new notational language of music that we don’t recognise yet. You’d expect magic mushrooms in the saxophone and amphetamines in the keyboard, and it’s simply, thoroughly, delightfully and disconcertingly weird.

BeatriceThere are also some terrific performances, none more so than Akiya Henry’s irrepressible Beatrice, who gives us one hilariously cantankerous appearance after another, chockfull of inventive characterisations, impetuous mischief and some brilliant physical comic business. The best scene in the whole play is where, separately, both Benedick and Beatrice overhear how the other is apparently in love with them; and Ms Henry’s contortions to hide behind or blend in with the set’s outrageously stylised vegetation so she can’t be noticed is comedy genius. By comparison, Luke Wilson’s Benedick comes across as an unusually decent sort of chap, rather reasonable and sensible. As a result perhaps there aren’t quite as many fireworks set off in the interchanges between the two characters, but at least Benedick is a beacon of sobriety in an otherwise hippy-trippy world.

Don PedraAnn Ogbomo is also outstanding as Don Pedra (minor quibble, but shouldn’t she be a Donna?) with tremendous stage presence and a gloriously authoritative voice that commands you listen and pay attention. Micah Balfour is also excellent as the manipulating Don John, and Taya Ming also impresses as a rather childlike and fragile Hero. Karen Henthorn plays the difficult role of Dogberry purely for laughs and gives us some excellent malapropisms.

Don JohnWasn’t it Shakespeare who said – and I think it was – the play’s the thing? And that, sadly, is where this production starts to fall apart. In his vision for the play, director Roy Alexander Weise has turned all his attention to the look of the thing, but not much thought has gone into its meaning. The futuristic otherworld is beautifully realised, but what light does it shed on, say, the motivations of Don John, or the common sense of Claudio, let alone whether Benedick and Beatrice have a future together? The bright façade of the production has seeped through to the plot, making almost all the characters much more lightweight and shallower. There’s little sense of the danger or tragedy that lurks beneath the surface because it’s all just a bit too nice and bland.

The Cast of Much AdoIt also bumbles and stumbles along at a very slow pace, and at three-and-a-quarter hours feels way too long. The second half in particular gets very boring at times, and feels very stop-starty with the plot progression; you feel the occasional urge to mutter just get on with it, rather than stop for another bit of music and sombre standing around. Scene changes need to be more dynamic – Act One ends with a whimper rather than a bang and no one has a clue whether to applaud or not; the movement of the actors needs to be more decisive and meaningfull; in fact, the whole thing just needs to be a lot snappier.

UrsulaDefinitely a brave failure rather than a lazy success. I hope the RSC keeps the set and costumes and uses them to much more telling effect in another play. Much Ado About Nothing continues at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 12th March.


Production photos by Ikin Yum

3-starsThreesy Does It!

Review – Much Ado About Nothing, Oxford Shakespeare Company, Wadham College, Oxford 15th August 2017

Much Ado About NothingSome Shakespeare plays are a constant part of your life; others you encounter every so often and renew your affectionate acquaintance with them; and yet others you come to later in life. I have to confess, gentle reader, that for most of my adult life I lived without Much Ado About Nothing. True, I studied it as an undergraduate, but it didn’t tickle my funnybone or move me like Twelfth Night or As You Like It. For years I felt that the warring wannabe lovers trick was much better done in The Taming of the Shrew (until my friend the Countess of Cockfosters showed me the error of my ways). It wasn’t until I was 35 that I actually saw it on stage, at the Pendley Shakespeare Festival in Tring; and then last time at Chichester in Christopher Luscombe’s amazing production. Much Ado is one of Shakespeare’s most loved comedies; still, there’s something about it that just doesn’t quite do it for me… and I know it’s my fault, not Shakespeare’s. Dear old chap.

Benedick and Beatrice having a nice timeShakespeare works so well in an open, garden setting, and there’s nowhere more atmospheric, charming and beautiful than at Wadham College. We’ve been coming to the Oxford Shakespeare Company productions every year since 2005, and at one point I didn’t think we were going to be lucky enough with the weather to manage it this year. Fortunately, a last minute sunny dry day was forecast for the last Tuesday of the run – and so we’ve kept our unbroken record!

Benedick and BeatriceDirector Nicholas Green has written some interesting and helpful notes in the programme about the production. It’s set in Messina, Italy, in 1943 at the time of the Allies invasion of Sicily, and thereafter the rest of Italy, and the toppling of Mussolini. And outwardly, the company have made a very successful job of authentically presenting that time. The military and noble costumes of Don Pedro, Don John and Claudio show great attention to detail. They even researched the amount of smoking that took place at the time, and faithfully recreate that on stage with unbleached Rizlas. However, I don’t feel that this specific time setting enhances the story at all; maybe it gives extra thrust to the cowardly fleeing of Don John – maybe – but it certainly didn’t impact on the human relationships between Benedick and Beatrice.

Leonarto and BorachioAnd that was for me the stumbling-block for the whole production – I couldn’t really get a grip on its creative vision. I couldn’t work out what it was trying to say that would make it different from any other production. Maybe I was spoiled by the Chichester production last year. I know that the difference of financial resources, for example, between the two companies makes comparisons pointless, but even so they’re still dealing with the same words, the same characters, the same story. Don’t get me wrong; this is an enjoyable production, with many good performances and plenty of funny moments. The scene where Benedick overhears Leonato, Claudio and Don Pedro talking of Beatrice’s love for him is played beautifully, with just the right level of pantomime fun when Benedick gets accidentally soaked by being on the receiving end of each of the other’s glasses of wine. The little non-Shakespearian asides, notably from Benedick, Don John, Leonato and Margaret, work really well and add some extra knowing fun to the proceedings.

David ChittendenOf the serious aspects of this play (there are many), the whole scenario of Claudio believing the lies about Hero and then confronting her on their wedding day was magnificently played, and I thought Samuel Simmonds as Claudio and Robyn Sinclair as Hero were absolutely superb throughout, on what is, for both of them, their professional stage debut. Musically, I found the show a little patchy; Ms Sinclair’s performance as Balthazar of Sigh No More was truly beautiful and I thought Nicholas Lloyd Webber’s composition for it was stunning. However, the ending – King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid – was for me a bit of a damp squib. There was a pause at the end before the final applause because everyone was expecting something more.

Robyn SinclairChristopher Jordan and Ivy Corbin made a very good Benedick and Beatrice; both convincing with their airs and graces but not afraid to look like a fool either. Mr Jordan has just the right amount of pomposity and Ms Corbin just the right amount of what Theresa May might call “bloody difficult woman”. It was great to see David Chittenden back with the OSC; his performance as Doctor Caius in The Merry Wives of Windsor (2005) to this day cracks us up whenever we think about it (which is surprisingly often). His Leonarto is a complex character: avuncular and fun-loving on the one hand, and savagely recriminatory on the other. Mr Chittenden weaves these traits into a deep and credible portrayal of an essentially kind man driven to hell by another man’s lies.

Samuel SimmondsChristopher Laishley’s hearty Don Pedro is full of spirit and decency, equally at home when teasing his friends as when he is ruling Aragon. He also has enormous fun as a trigger-happy member of Dogberry’s watch and as the “demure” Ursula, whose interval-introducing speech probably got the loudest laugh of the night. I confess that, whilst her Margaret was cheeky and effervescent, I didn’t really like Heather Johnson’s portrayal of Dogberry. It’s a difficult character to make both credible and funny, and for me I’m afraid it failed on both counts. It was very frenetic, and relied heavily on babbling Spaghetti English (one of my pet hates) so that it was really hard to understand most of what she said. Thinking back to Nick Haverson’s performance in Chichester, I realise just what a role-defining performance that was. I think the identity of Dogberry simply got lost somewhere by trading on the production’s wartime Italian setting.

Peter RaeBut for me the standout performance was from Peter Rae as Don John. Shakespeare provides even less explanation for Don John’s desire to do evil than he does for Iago hatred of Othello. This Don John is suave and patronising but not above participating in some comic business, which brings him more into line with the other characters, and removes some of his aloofness. Just one disparaging flick of his cigarette on his first entrance and you knew he was in control. His authority and stage presence were second to none, and I hope he comes back to perform with the company again!

So all in all, a good production but probably not a great one; still, not being that much of a Much Ado fan – maybe it’s me. Look forward to next year’s production!

Review – Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing, Chichester Festival Theatre, 29th October 2016

Love's Labour's Lost & Much Ado About NothingRestricting ourselves to just two Shakespeare comedies on the same day seems like a mere bagatelle in comparison with the Young Chekhov trilogy we saw in Chichester this time last year. An interesting contrast in fact; because everyone thinks of Chekhov as being dark and dismal, whereas Platonov, in particular, was a complete riot; and everyone thinks of Shakespeare comedies as being heaps of lightweight fun resulting in multiple weddings, whereas these two plays have more than their fair share of sinister undercurrents and both leave you at the end with a certain degree of discomfort that unsettles your laughter.

rebecca-collingwood-as-hero-in-much-ado-about-nothing-at-chichester-festival-theatre-c-manuel-harlan-137I mustn’t walk before I run. Our Chichester weekends are always a celebration of love, life and having a good time. Thus, we were joined not only by Lady Duncansby and her butler Sir William, but also Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters. The six of us ate and drank our way through lunch at the Minerva Brasserie (I can’t tell you how recommended that experience is), late night dinner at Cote (always a pleasure) followed by the gorgeous gluten-free fry-up breakfast at Spires on Sunday morning. All this and we even got to see a couple of plays too – Love’s Labour’s Lost in the afternoon and Much Ado in the evening – sounds like the story of my life. They’d been playing in repertory for the previous four weeks; in fact, we saw the final performances of both plays in Chichester; but worry ye not, they will be returning, no doubt revitalised, at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in time for Christmas.

lisa-dillon-leah-whitaker-paige-carter-rebecca-collingwood-loves-labours-lost-cft-c-manuel-harlan-40We’d seen the Oxford Shakespeare Company’s Love’s Labour’s Lost earlier in the year. I’m very fond of this play, and for some reason, feel very well acquainted with it. By contrast, I’m not at all familiar with Much Ado About Nothing; I’ve only seen it performed on stage once before, a semi-professional production at the Pendley Festival in Tring in 1995. We did, however, catch the delightful film version three years ago. The film probably isn’t much help in preparing you for this production by Christopher Luscombe, as it’s already a very modern take on the original. Mr Luscombe’s double-header of Shakespeare was first produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2014 and I’m not surprised it’s come back with a vengeance because it’s an absolutely first rate production.

the-company-in-much-ado-about-nothing-at-chichester-festival-theatre-photo-manuel-harlan-240We’re no longer in the sixteenth century, for Mr Luscombe has transplanted these plays to the twentieth, with Love’s Labour’s Lost set in the summer of 1914 and Much Ado at Christmas 1918, like two bookends either side of the First World War. Simon Higlett’s fantastic set serves both plays, appearing more like an Oxbridge college in LLL and a gentleman’s club in Much Ado. The flexible set glides in and out over the stage, sometimes lingering on the end of a scene as it slowly retreats into the back darkness, giving additional emphasis to whatever final image was presented. Nigel Hess’ incidental music, played with West End show stopping aplomb by Bob Broad’s excellent band, comes across a little incongruous at first, but gradually provides a Hollywood movie-type accompaniment to every dramatic development. It works really well, although it’s not really 1910s in feel, more 30s-40s. There are also a few songs scattered throughout the plays – they don’t quite make them into musicals as such, but again they help to provide a vintage, retro feel to the whole thing.

peter-mcgovern-nick-haverson-roderick-smith-in-much-ado-about-nothing-at-cft-c-manuel-harlan-124The two plays have been associated together for this production because there is reason to suggest that Much Ado is, in fact, the missing Shakespearian play Love’s Labour’s Won. Personally, I haven’t delved into the analysis of how likely this is, but I do appreciate that the two plays make an excellent pairing. In LLL a very funny story of love developing between four young and rather charming people comes to a sudden and sad end when the news of her father’s death forces the Princess to retreat into mourning, thus requiring her followers to do the same – sorry if I spoiled it for you there. If after a twelvemonth of hermit-like abstinence, the King still feels the same way about the Princess then he is invited to renew his wooing (and his followers can do the same.)edward-bennett-benedick-in-much-ado-about-nothing-at-chichester-festival-theatre-photo-manuel-harlan-75 However, in a throat-chokingly moving final scene, we all realise that the likelihood of that renewal of affection in a year’s time is comparatively unlikely. In Much Ado, the fortunes are reversed; an honourable but gullible soldier is tricked into believing that his beloved is inconstant with her affections – indeed, it’s alleged she’s having it away with all and sundry. But the plot against him is discovered, the lovers are reunited (there’s an awful lot of forgiveness that has to take place) and together with the infamously bickering Beatrice and Benedick, all four get married and live happy ever after Or so we presume.

edward-bennett-tunji-kasim-sam-alexander-in-loves-labours-lost-at-cft-photo-manuel-harlan-Both productions make the most of the comic opportunities that arise from both the text and Mr Luscombe’s vision of what’s really going on. For example, Much Ado features the extraordinarily funny scene where Benedick is hiding in order to listen in to Don Pedro, Leonato and Claudio’s conversation about how Beatrice adores him. On the one hand, you have the challenges facing the three conspirators of how best to spin their yarn so that Benedick is hoodwinked, whilst trying to come up with these ideas off the top of their heads. On the other, you have Benedick, allegedly hidden, popping up at odd angles within the ostentatious Christmas tree that has been standing with enormous pride in the corner of the stage, enduring every humiliation under the sun that could be associated with Yuletide Alpine foliaged concealment. It’s a combination of brilliant comic timing and slapstick and works a treat.

steven-pacey-nick-haverson-chris-mccalphy-peter-mcgovern-john-arthur-in-lll-at-cft-c-manuel-harlan115There are also some moments when your laughter catches in your breath as you realise the stark awfulness of someone’s suffering. Normally I would dread the performance of a character such as Dogberry, the hapless constable who’s always just a slapstick figure of fun. It’s the kind of thing you’d think had them rolling in the aisles in the 1590s but today seems immensely tedious. This is precisely what you expect to see in this production too, with Dogberry’s malapropisms and nervous tics; an almost cartoon version of reality. The prison scene, where Dogberry gets the criminals in front of the Sexton to finally hear their case, starts off as classic slapstick comedy but develops into something that really digs deep into the heart of Dogberry. It’s a stunning coup de theatre that genuinely arises from the characterisation and the plot development, and I was shocked. There’s a similar, but lighter, exposé in LLL, when Dumain joins the other three lads on the roof secretly to declare his love for his lady. I think there are few things more rewarding in a modern Shakespeare production than the sight of a cuddly toy. It’s very funny indeed – and deep down, ever so slightly disturbing.

edward-bennett-lisa-dillon-in-loves-labours-lost-at-chichester-festival-theatre-c-manuel-harlan-Mr Luscombe has brought together a superbly talented cast to create two fantastic shows that bring these old stories to life with all the freshness and relevance as if they were written yesterday. At their heart are two effervescent performances by Edward Bennett as Berowne (LLL) and Benedick (MAAN). We’ve seen Mr Bennett a few times – notably when he stood in as Hamlet whilst David Tennant was indisposed, and also in Plenty at Sheffield – but I think with his current performances he really secures his position as one of our finest practitioners of Shakespeare. Even if the language is a little intractable, you still understand every nuance of what he says; his amazingly gifted facial expressions tell a thousand tales. He’s master of all the moods; not only can he bring the house down, as in the Christmas Tree scene, but he can also deliver, with perfect solemnity, the regretful speeches of Berowne, after the Princess’ father has been reported dead. He can also create the passionate and stirring sentiment that encourages the other three students into full-time pursuit of their ladies. Opposing him – and a perfect match for him – are his Rosaline and Beatrice, in the form of Lisa Dillon. Like all the LLL ladies, Ms Dillon’s Rosaline is coquettish but ruthless, fun-loving and emotional in her coping with her suitor. As Beatrice, she’s on fire from the very first scene where she spars with Benedick; but she also conveys the perplexed Beatrice – who overhears the others say the Benedick is in love with her – with a beautiful mix of comedy and warmth. And there’s a true chill in her voice when she demands reparation for the harm Claudio has done to her sister’s reputation.

nick-haverson-centre-co-in-loves-labours-lost-at-chichester-festival-theatre-photo-manuel-harlan159Sam Alexander is excellent in both his roles, perhaps particularly in the more rewarding role of the King of Navarre in LLL, as he has further to fall in embarrassment when his hypocrisy is found out. His Don John is – literally – a tight-lipped evil bastard, sourly looking on with his bandaged leg and crutches – is being wounded in the war sufficient reason for him to be bitterly vengeful against Claudio and Hero? Mr Alexander portrays him as a cold fish who doesn’t show his hand, and it’s very convincingly performed. Tunji Kasim also gives us two enjoyable performances as the wet-behind-the ears Dumain and the slightly more noble but only slightly less wet Claudio, where his refined nobility shines through, albeit devalued by his feeble lack of perception. There were some gasps from audience members – who obviously didn’t know the story – in the church scene when he renounced Hero and delivered his blistering invective against her. It’s as Dumain though that we remember him fondly as he still clings on to his bedside teddy through thick and thin.

sam-alexander-leah-whitaker-in-loves-labours-lost-at-chichester-festival-theatre-c-manuel-harlan-1One of my favourite actors, Steven Pacey, is back on the Chichester stage in the roles of Holofernes in LLL and Leonato in Much Ado. Magnificently pompous as the erudite Holofernes, one of the comic highlights of the production is his reaction to John Arthur’s Sir Nathaniel, when he offers him the back-handed compliment, learned without opinion. A great portrayal of an utter windbag. His Leonato, though, is stunning ; we joyfully laugh along when, with his other conspirators, he is teasing Benedick in the Christmas Tree scene; but we’re shattered by his realisation that Hero’s reputation has been besmirched by Claudio – here’s a man torn between love for his daughter and traditional respectability, and with nowhere to go but to cry his eyes out in the pews.

paige-carter-leah-whitaker-lisa-dillon-rebecca-collingwood-in-ll-l-at-cft-c-manuel-harlan-124Leah Whitaker gives a strong performance as the Princess of France, relishing her job as chief tease to the suitors, and loving her mockery of the King of Navarre for his idiotic pomposity; then giving way to dignified grieving when Marcade brings the news her father has died, which absolutely signifies the end of celebrations. Even the final song of Icicles hanging by the wall has at truly mournful feel to it; the words of Mercury have totally put paid to the songs of Apollo. John Hodgkinson provides an enjoyably melodramatic Don Armado, bringing out all the traditional humour of the role (emphasising the J’s as H’s, calling his learned companions “men of piss”, and so on) – which contrasts with his very plain and straightforward playing of Don Pedro: respectable, hearty, uncomplicated. It’s a generous performance of quite a bland role against which he allows the other more interesting characters to shine.

the-company-of-much-ado-about-nothing-at-chichester-festival-theatre-photo-manuel-harlan-43The other truly stand out performance from both plays is from Nick Haverson as Costard and Dogberry. His Costard is a slovenly but over-confident wretch who embodies the comic spirit of the “lower orders” – and he plays a brilliant scene with Berowne as he compares emolument with remuneration like a mischievous Jack Russell. His Dogberry, however, bears hard his responsibilities and frustrations and shows the signs of a life that is only faintly succeeding. When he is pushed just that little bit too far as he tries to bring the villains to book, his reaction astounds and overwhelms you. I’ve never seen a Shakespearean clown figure portrayed in such a light before. It knocks you sideways.

edward-bennett-lisa-dillon-in-loves-labours-lost-at-chichester-festival-theatre-photo-manuel-harlan51All the cast give excellent ensemble support throughout; Rebecca Collingwood is a very moving and despairing Hero; Peter McGovern in fine voice as Moth; Chris Nayak insidious as the manipulative Borachio; Chris McCalphy delightfully dull as Dull; William Belchambers a snide Conrade; Jamie Newall a prissy Boyet; Paige Carter a charming Maria. It would be tedious to mention the entire cast, but everyone played a vital part in creating the magic of this double-header production.

Their season at the Theatre Royal Haymarket begins on 9th December and continues to 18th March. Two fantastic shows that I couldn’t recommend more strongly!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Much Ado About Nothing, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 15th July 2013

Much Ado About NothingShakespeare and I have a bit of a love/hate relationship. I tend to love him, but sometimes he doesn’t like me quite so much, especially when I messed up badly in my Shakespeare paper at Oxford. As a play, Much Ado About Nothing and I have never really bonded. I’ve never seen it performed in a theatre; I read it, at university, in order to write an essay on it and some other comedies, but it didn’t bounce off the page to me, and for the most part I think it’s fair to say that neither of us have given each other a second thought over the intervening years. So when I thought I’d do a quick flick through the text before seeing Joss Whedon’s highly personal film version, I was surprised to realise that I don’t actually have an Arden edition copy. I ended up having to look through the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s old Shakespeare volume that was awarded to her at school in 1935 “for industry and progress”; and to be honest, it wasn’t that helpful.

Alexis DenisofAs you may know, gentle reader, I am only just starting to catch up on cinema going after about fifteen years of barely seeing a thing, thanks to the supremely comfortable new Errol Flynn Filmhouse opening up seven minutes walk from home. So the name Joss Whedon doesn’t mean much to me; I had to check all the things he’s done before on wikipedia (so it must be true), and it looks a pretty impressive CV to me. He even co-wrote Toy Story, for goodness’ sake, so he must be good. I knew that this film had some extremely esoteric elements to it – for example, it was shot in a mere twelve days; the set is Whedon’s own home in Santa Monica; the cast are largely a repertory company who have appeared in many other of Whedon’s projects; and it’s all in black and white. The first three I can understand, getting it done quickly, no commuting, and working with your friends all sounds very appealing. But why the black and white? I’m not quite sure what that gained – you definitely get a sense of it being older and more historical, even though the setting is entirely up to date. Sometimes a black and white still portrait can be more expressive and atmospheric than an identical colour version – maybe that was the effect he was trying to achieve. I’m glad I never followed a career in cinematography.

Amy AckerTo get you up to speed, the story is a simple one. In a nutshell, Benedick and Beatrice doth protest their dislike for each other too much (very reminiscent of Katharine and Petruchio in Taming of the Shrew), so their friends scheme to make them “fall in love” within a week, simply by getting them to overhear “private” conversations with others who talk about how much the one fancies the other. Alongside that, the decent but stupid Claudio, who has fallen in love with Beatrice’s cousin Hero, allows himself to be duped by the wicked Don John and his acolytes into thinking that Hero is putting herself about a bit; to the extent that he publicly jilts her at the altar. The bumbling constable Dogberry and his associates unwittingly stumble upon the plot against Claudio so that the truth eventually comes out and multiple marriages ensue; all’s well that ends well, one might say.

Fran KranzMrs Chrisparkle and I both thought it was a little slow to start; there’s quite a lot of scene-setting at the beginning and meeting a lot of people who, without the aid of a theatre programme, you really haven’t got a clue who they are. Personally I also found it very softly spoken throughout, and I certainly missed quite a lot of the dialogue at first. However, when it really starts to get going, as the mischievous plots to get Benedick and Beatrice together develop, it gains a good momentum and at times is really funny. The scene where Benedick overhears Don Pedro, Leonato and Claudio’s conversation about him and Beatrice is full of laugh-out-loud physical comedy, as is the subsequent eavesdropping of Beatrice on the similar conversation between Hero and Margaret the maid. There’s also a brilliantly funny scene between Benedick and Beatrice where he is trying to impress her with his physical exercise prowess; and the scene where Claudio rejects Hero is also extremely dramatic. Some of the best moments, however, are reserved for the final few scenes where Dogberry and his team bring the villains to book, and it all ends happily ever after.

Jillian MorgeseAlexis Denisof and Amy Acker invest the roles of Benedick and Beatrice with huge personality and splendid self-interest. They’re appropriately mischievous and waspish when sparring, and deliver some very nice pratfalls as the plot thickens. Once they have protested their love for each other, the scene where Beatrice demands Benedick kills Claudio, out of respect for her cousin’s apparent death from grief, is very moving and serious, and played with all the necessary gravitas. Fran Kranz is a very good Claudio, boyishly enthusiastic for his virtuous Hero, then turning all spoilt and savage as he laps up the poison fed by the schemers against him. Jillian Morgese is a very dignified Hero, with a very nice line in underplayed comedy in the scene with Margaret for Beatrice to overhear.

Dogberry and VergesThe other really superb performance is from Nathan Fillion as Dogberry, the character now evolved into the role of head of security at the Governor’s residence, sharp-suited yet still a totally blithering idiot, shocked but not remotely speechless at Conrade’s calling him an ass, and with a fantastically misplaced sense of his own self-importance. He enjoys terrific support from Tom Lenk as his even more ridiculous sidekick Verges.

It’s a really accessible and entertaining adaptation, sensitive to both the original text and the need to make it relevant to today. As Mrs C said on the way home, they must have had such fun making it. Definitely worth seeing.