Saturday, October 12, 2019

Much Ado About Nothing

Zindzi Okenyo (Beatrice)

Set Design by Pip Runciman

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare.  Bell Shakespeare directed by James Evans.  Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse, October 11-19, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
October 11

What a wonderful production of Shakespeare at his irreverent best.  I have long tended to think of Much Ado About Nothing as an interesting play about a lot – that is, Shakespeare’s take on what we now call feminism: a kind of polemical comedy, a bit like Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man.

But James Evans’ directing of this terrific team of actors has revealed the real still-youthful William Shakespeare, in his thirties in 1598, whose play is just so funny!  I can’t recall, even when looking back at Bell Shakespeare’s excellent production in 2011, being in an audience so taken up with laughter, especially throughout the first half.

At last I felt like how I surely would have felt if I had been there when Shakespeare and his cast must have done as Duncan Ragg (Benedick) and Zindzi Okenyo (Beatrice) do in this production.  They become standup comics playing directly to the crowd, drawing laughter from all the innuendos and making fun of individuals in the audience. 

It must have been a hit still, even more than a decade later in 1612–1613, during the festivities preceding the marriage of King James’ daughter Princess Elizabeth with Frederick V, Elector Palatine.  Imagine that audience of wedding guests for the future Queen of Bohemia as Benedick picks out women in the crowd, even the bride perhaps, winking at each: “One woman is fair, yet I am well; another is wise, yet I am well; but till all graces be in one woman, one woman shall not come in my grace.  Rich she shall be, that’s certain; wise, or I’ll none; virtuous, or I’ll never cheapen her; fair, or I’ll never look on her; mild, or not come near me; noble, or not I for an angel; of good discourse, an excellent musician, and her hair shall be of what colour it please God.”
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There was certainly something of Judith Lucy in Okenyo’s Beatrice, while Ragg’s Benedick is certainly at home in Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell.  And what was even more insane was Mandy Bishop (who you’ll remember played Julia Gillard in eight Wharf Revues), here in male roles as Balthazar, Prince Don Pedro’s servant and singer; and an extraordinary scooter-riding Constable of the Watch, Dogberry of Spoonerism fame – a character straight out of Mad as Hell, cheered along by the audience like The Kraken.  And can she sing!

It worked so well in the first place because Evans has Leonato as a great entertainer.  David Whitney’s house was the centre of attraction for sophisticated fun, and we felt we were welcome guests.

That’s where Evans’ reverence for Shakespeare comes in.  After interval we find ourselves in Leonato’s house of hatred, even of his own daughter Hero, because Don Pedro and Claudius, betrothed to Hero, have been fooled by a plot contrived by Don Pedro’s bastard brother, Don John.  They believe they have seen Hero with an unknown lover at midnight immediately before the planned wedding.

The change in atmosphere from enjoyable laughter to vicious hatred was absolutely palpable for us, the more so because we had felt so much part of the entertainment before.  We hadn’t really liked Paul Reichstein’s Don John before interval.  He had given us an occasional laugh, but as we saw his plot being concocted, we became ready to boo him if he appeared again – which he didn’t.  He left town, but had himself been fooled by paying Borachio 1000 ducats to carry out the plot.  Borachio confesses after being arrested by our zany Dogberry.

In the meantime we see the other side to acting Shakespeare.  Comedy edges towards potential tragedy, and all the cast morph into stunningly good realism, taking us along with them.  As Evans writes in his Director’s Essay, “Shakespeare was never constrained by the limitations of genre”.  But the important point is that he shows us this, in action.  Everyone on stage, and backstage, understands.  And we sense the change.

So when we feel relief that Hero is shown not to be guilty, and the mood seems to revert to good humour, we hear Vivienne Awosoga's speech and cheer her on when she slaps Will McDonald's Claudio in the face.  As Evans writes “it is essentially a hybrid play”: just as hybrid as real life will always be for the two couples in their marriages. 

The whole company thoroughly deserved the ecstatic acclamation they received last night because they matched the maturity of Shakespeare’s writing – and magnificently changed my appreciation of Much Ado About Nothing for the better.

Not to be missed – in Canberra till October 19, then at Sydney Opera House October 22 – November 24.

If, by the way, you would like to know more about Shakespeare’s use of innuendo, have a look at “Noting” on that Wikipedia page.  There’s more than a nod-and-a-wink to the play’s title than you might think.

Beatrice – Zindzi Okenyo                                  Hero / Conrade – Vivienne Awosoga
Don Pedro / 1st Watchman – Danny Ball          Margaret / Verges – Marissa Bennett
Dogberry / Balthazar – Mandy Bishop              Claudio / Barachio – Will McDonald
Antonio / Sexton – Suzanne Pereira                  Benedick – Duncan Ragg
Don John / 2nd Watchman – Paul Reichstein    Leonato – David Whitney

Creatives and Musicians:
Director – James Evans; Designer – Pip Runciman; Lighting Designer – Niklas Pajanti; Composer and Sound Designer – Andrée Greenwell; Movement and Fight Director – Nigel Poulton; Voice and Text Coach – Jess Chambers
Photography - Pierre Toussaint / Prudence Upton
Oboe – Angus Webster; Guitar – Nick Meredith; Bass – Jessica Dunn; Drumkit – Luke Herbert

Finally, the wedding of Claudio and Hero
L to R upstage: Danny Ball (Don Pedro), Paul Reichstein (Don John), Duncan Ragg (Benedick), Zindzi Okenyo (Beatrice)
David Whitney (Leonato), Suzanne Pereira (Sexton)
L to R foreground:  Will McDonald (Claudio), Vivienne Awosoga (Hero)
Photo: Clare Hawley