Oxford! London! Stratford! Guildford! Japan! No, this is not the plan of a badly constructed emergency gap year, but the erratic route along which the Oxford University Dramatic Society is taking its impressive production of Much Ado About Nothing. I joined them in London and was tickled by what I saw.
The setting is Sicily in the 50s, so the actors adopt a Mafioso swagger, guns holstered at the hip, dressed in double-breasted suits. Director Max Gill argues that the prominence of honour, family and reputation ties the period to Elizabethan London but the update seems superficial; the temporal shift failed to extract any new or provocative meaning from the play itself.
The play was presented well – the set effective; centre stage in the middle of a vine-entwined pergola stood a white wrought-iron bench, a kind of throne for ‘Don’ Leonato. One of the better accessories of the adaptation was the use of Sicilian music – classical guitars, brisk and whining accordions, string-laden – which provided the soundtrack to the various dances that form the crux of some of the most physical comedy in the play.
The story is of two pairs of lovers, the willing – Hero and Claudio – and the reluctant – Benedick and Beatrice. The latter are more interesting due to their denial and provide the set-up for some great comedy scenes. They are also the finest actors in the cast. Ruby Thomas as Beatrice, with a gravelly, smoke-tempered voice, was proud and dominating; and in the most serious parts of the play, she shone. She used every element of herself to physically embody her characters feelings: wholly overwhelmed by the drama of her cousin’s wedding gone awry. Similarly Benedick, played by Jordan Waller, was a powerful presence in all his scenes. His comic timing was excellent; he talked to and with the audience as if it were a pantomime – surprisingly effectively. This seems to have been the emphasis of the production: extracting as much humour as possible from the script. The audience were engaged, helped in no small part by Thomas’ and Waller’s ability to make their lines seem natural.
Matt Gavan, as Don Pedro, and William Hatcher as Leonato also earn special mention; the former for his range, his effusiveness and energy and the latter for his convincing assumption of the part of the father-figure, straight-laced and sternly paternal.
The tone of the show was a cross between Horrible Histories and Blackadder, with ridiculous, tongue-in-cheek jokes, lots of silly dancing and a plot based on mutual misunderstanding caused by a self-proclaimed villain, brilliantly named John the Bastard. It was all (apart from a dramatic section in the middle) complete farce – with just the right amount of cross-dressing and near ‘he’s behind you’ moments. Dogberry and Verges are Shakespearean Chuckle Brothers, trying to apprehend and arrest two troublemakers.
Overall, the play was actually very funny – beyond the pretentious theatre chuckles that usually accompany Shakespeare plays. The cast was particularly strong and the whole production is clearly the result of a tremendous amount of effort, not to mention a close knowledge of the script that pushed this performance leagues beyond most ‘updated’ Shakespeare comedies. In the end, whether set in an appropriate era or not, a big Sicilian barn dance provided a fantastic finale.