Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare. Bell Shakespeare at Canberra Playhouse, May 20 to June 4 2011.
Reviewed by Frank McKone
Usually I write immediately after seeing a show, but this performance (following a five week season at Sydney Opera House) caught me a bit by surprise. I decided to give myself a day to think a bit longer before writing, since Bell has treated Canberra, as they traditionally do, to a run of a reasonable length for this city of 330,000 people.
I have always been amazed at the emergence of Shakespeare the writer, with such wit, humour, sense of tragedy and ability to stage everything from naturalistic speech to ceremonial ritual – all in one play. In his early thirties, living in a society riven by religious conflict and controlled by monarchs who had, and used, power over people’s life and death, William Shakespeare’s brilliance stands out against, above and beyond those who destroy rather than create. Much Ado is certainly not about nothing.
My surprise – not at all an unpleasant one – began to strike me early on, when Benedick’s facility with a stand-up comedian’s flow of words was not less in understanding than Beatrice’s sharpness of riposte. This Benedick was not even just the equal of this Beatrice, but had far more humanity than she could muster. Hallo, I began to think, is this because Blazey Best was overplaying her role and becoming too much the shrew? Is Toby Schmitz simply the better actor?
Or was something going on here to turn my previous view of this play on its head? Beatrice had always seemed to me to be a modern feminist – a woman of natural maturity in contrast to the incapacities of men of her age, and a significant role model for the easily infatuated Hero. For me, she did go to an ideological extreme in demanding that Benedick kill Claudio, but in realising this when Don John’s evil perfidy is revealed, she understood that she should back down and accept Benedick for the honest man he is, even if he might not be all that exciting.
But in John Bell’s interpretation, the play belongs to Schmitz’s Benedick. He becomes the central character through whose eyes we see the issues. As he bit by bit realises the truth about his own feelings, not only for Beatrice but about all the other players, and sees that Beatrice has not the strength of character that she pretends to have, it is he, Benedick, who sees the danger and rescues her from the likely dire results of her immaturity. He does indeed challenge Claudio, but takes his time to check things out and go through the proper motions of agreeing on a time and place for the action. Why does he not challenge and kill Claudio as soon as he meets up with him? Or even stab him without warning? To do so would be as thoughtless as Beatrice’s demand.
Unfortunately, for me, the quality of Schmitz’s performance made Best’s performance of Beatrice seem a bit too mundane – except, ironically, for the scene in which she makes her demand of Benedick. Though what Beatrice expects Benedick to do is, in today’s terms, unacceptable, Blazey Best came up to Toby Schmitz in the making of it. “If I were a man…” showed a Beatrice absolutely equal to the man Schmitz had created in his Benedick. And so I could be satisfied that their marriage was right, but probably with Benedick offering more to Beatrice than she might at first realise she needs. This left me with the question, was Best’s performance exactly right for John Bell’s interpretation, or was the sharpness of her delivery a simplification, a lesser quality in her acting?
I can only recommend, dear reader, that you make sure you see Much Ado About Nothing to make up your own mind. Of course, I wouldn’t do this unless the rest of the cast are up to your expectations. Caparisons are unfair, but I have to mention Max Gillies as Dogberry – malapropisms galore, and wonderfully impressed. Design, movement and music all combine to make something a lot more than mere RomCom, with an especially cleverly staged ending. Not to be missed.