2011 seems to be the year for Much Ado About Nothing. The much-publicised David Tennant/Catherine Tate production, the Shakespeare’s Globe staging and, first out of the blocks, the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds.
Director Abigail Anderson has embraced the intimacy of the Regency playhouse and produced a chamber version of Shakespeare’s battle of the sexes. The audience here are not mere observers but co-conspirators in the plot. House lights remain on throughout and asides are not only directed to the audience but the audience is positively acknowledged. In a play, more than most, centred on overhearing snippets of gossip here the audience are fully complicit in the action.
Much like Bury St Edmunds boy Sir Peter Hall’s current Twelfth Night at the National Theatre, this approach focuses attention on the text, though sadly it also shares the same feeling that, somehow, the comedy has been overlooked in favour of this textual clarity.
Much Ado is often played as a bawdy romp but this is a much more static production; there are moments of comic tomfoolery that delight but the overall impression is of a staid affair. At times the production seems over long and in need of an injection of pace. More variety of blocking would also aid engagement of the audience, many scenes being played with characters standing in line across the stage speaking dialogue directly to the audience.
At the heart of Much Ado is the pivotal relationship, or more accurately the fear of relationship, between Beatrice and Benedick. This is classic battle of the sexes as wit and wordplay come to the fore. Polly Lister gives a wonderfully feisty Beatrice, outwardly strong but also full of doubt when mislead by her cousin and maid. As her counterpoint Nicholas Tizzard’s Benedick seems less secure in his affections, easily led by the mischievous rumours left by his compatriots.
When the comic moments are allowed to the fore they work well. Nick Underwood’s Borachio, a fine comic turn full of song, works well and the reactions from Benedick and Beatrice to the overheard plotting delight as they make full use of the Theatre Royal’s stage and auditorium. Careful thought, though, does need to be given to the positioning of some of these scenes given, the Regency theatre’s challenging sight lines.
Other performances are less successful. Ellie Kirk’s Hero suffers from projection problems, making emotional connection difficult, while James Wallace needs to pull his Don John back from a flaccid caricature of Alan Rickman to make a more rounded villain.
Libby Watson’s simple set of frames and sliding panels works well, effectively lit by Mark Howland, who manages the difficult task of balancing stage lighting with house lighting. Pat Whymark’s evocative score provides a strong sense of place underneath the action and, when combined with Yael Lowenstein’s choreography, provides the requisite emotional release.
Overall there is much potential here; the company just needs to relax into the piece more to allow both the comedy and tragedy to flow in what is one of Shakespeare’s more naturalistic pieces. The piece does seem at the moment woefully slow in places and attention to pace and blocking should easily resolve these issues.
Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s most accessible plays and the delights of Beatrice and Benedick sparring will enthral many newcomers to the Bard of Avon’s work. And, ultimately, isn’t that the aim of any Shakespeare production?
Photo: Ellie Kirk and Suzanne Ahmed in Much Ado About Nothing. Photographer Keith Mindham.