Funny 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!
We 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”!
What 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!
It’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.
Hastie’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.
But 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.
There 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.
Of 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.
In 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