wed 17/07/2024

Much Ado About Nothing, National Theatre review - Shakespeare’s comedy goes Hollywood musical | reviews, news & interviews

Much Ado About Nothing, National Theatre review - Shakespeare’s comedy goes Hollywood musical

Much Ado About Nothing, National Theatre review - Shakespeare’s comedy goes Hollywood musical

Simon Godwin delivers an unexpectedly conventional production, larky and fluffy

Strike up the band: the cast of 'Much Ado About Nothing'Manuel Harlan

After gender-flipping the National’s Malvolio, the director Simon Godwin might have been expected to be equally bold with Much Ado About Nothing at the same address. A same-sex Beatrice and Benedick romance? Dogberry in bondage gear, zonked out on poppers?

True, Godwin has been free with the text, cutting freely and turning Governor Leonato into a hotel owner with a wife instead of a brother, but this production is still unexpectedly trad. It’s set in Sicily in “an imagined past”, though looking a lot like Golden Age Hollywood, where Don Pedro and his officers are checking into the Hotel Messina. What follows is more Anything Goes than anything goes.

This choice of setting is a cue for designer Anna Fleischle to excel herself. Hollywood art deco is the prevailing mode for the balconied hotel, artfully using the Lyttelton’s central revolve so that the lobby can turn into internal rooms on a dime. Boxes rise from below-stage for a ladies powder room and a gents steam room, and the detachable side wings have mulitple little doorways through which the hotel staff pop in and out like antic weather-house people.

Katherine Parkinson as Beatrice in 'Much Ado About Nothing'The characters, too, have gone Hollywood, as if they were in a screwball comedy that keeps breaking into a soft-shoe shuffle. Katherine Parkinson’s Beatrice (pictured above), sporting wide-legged trousers and crazy little hats, is a blend of Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers, with a dollop of Lucille Ball slapstick. It’s an enjoyable comic turn, though the knockabout tends to eclipse her spoken text, and the subtleties she might have brought to Beatrice get lost in the clowning. 

No such problem with John Heffernan’s Benedick, a clearly projected mix of suave languor and rectitude, even while covered in ice cream and sprinkles. Think David Niven with a dash of Stewart Grainger. This Benedick is not so smart that he can’t be gulled into falling in love with Beatrice, but he’s clearly clever, and a Decent Chap. Heffernan’s crisply comic verse-speaking is model stuff — would that the rest of the cast were all as crystal-clear — and he’s clearly enjoying being a romantic lead.

Also having a good time is David Fynn as Dogberry. The malaprop-ing head of the watch, here transformed into the hotel’s chief security officer, can outstay his welcome, but Godwin has tweaked the text for his scenes, creating new word-wrecks — “examinationise” is the standout — and usefully accenting the sight gags of this sideshow so it becomes more than a pileup of misused words. Fynn, who has a fine singing voice, is also a good physical comedian, never better than when trying to eavesdrop on the plot to disgrace Hero and attempting to render himself invisible by the daft ploy of becoming inert matter, slithering pointlessly down some steps.

The two junior “security officers’ now have modern names, Hugh Oatcake and Georgina Seacole (a silently funny Olivia Forrest). Officer Seacole is unusual in this production for being quiet, as Godwin has all his women almost shrieking in frustration and thumping their fists in lines such as Beatrice’s repeated “Oh that I were a man!”, done at full bellow in case we missed the point.

No woman onstage is louder than Margaret, the maid seduced into helping with the plot against Hero. This is Phoebe Horn’s stage debut, and it’s a blast - almost literally, as Margaret signals her playacting with some very high-volume shouting. Horn can also do rapid-delivery dialogue that would defeat many an actor, and she deservedly got a round of applause.

It’s all very larky and witty, with giggle-worthy sight gags involving a trolley, a hammock and a beach hut in the twin scenes that entrap Beatrice and Benedict into coupledom. The jollity is underlined by sunny crooned songs (music by Michael Bruce), accompanied by an onstage quintet, and a mini Busby Berkeley routine, complete with maribou fans. For the finale, the whole company lines up to strut its stuff in an engaging Broadway musical dance number. 

But I missed having a less busy, less fluffy side to the play. Hero’s collapse is briefly handled with some gravity, but Claudio’s misery-riddled repentance for his treatment of her doesn’t land with enough force as Eben Figuieredo is made to play him like a dopey footballer, with the strangulated vowels of the British urban “street”, a man with little inherent nobility to rediscover. As her persecutor, Don John, David Judge is suitably lizard-like, but his malign presence feels crowded out by all the high-jinks, and even Benedick and Beatrice’s romance seems to be conducted at a lick, leaving little room for reflection, either theirs or the audience’s. These lovers might tickle your funny bone, but they won’t touch your heart. 

Medals all round for stamina, though, for the performance I saw on the hottest night in UK history: despite the air-conditioning, the cast were visibly melting, some inside heavy costumes, but still gave it their all.

John Heffernan’s crisply comic verse-speaking is model stuff


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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