2012 - Much Ado About Nothing

REVIEW: Much Ado About Nothing
January 8, 2013, 5:00 pm

REVIEW: Much Ado About Nothing - The West Australian
A direct line can be traced from the rom-coms of the 1930s and 40s, most especially the genre's scintillating screwball variant, back to the comedies of William Shakespeare.
Hostile, seemingly mismatched lovers; witty, rapid-fire repartee; upper-crust milieu; playful attitude to romance and sex; disguises and mistaken identities - all devices so beloved by The Bard - were given a sizzling spin by such masters of the form as Frank Capra, Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges.

It's also why the decision to relocate Much Ado About Nothing from the Sicilian port city of Messina to the West Australian port city of Albany during World War II for this summer's Shakespeare in Kings Park makes so much sense.
I couldn't watch the play's central lovers, Benedick and Beatrice, soldier and shrew, engage in their "merry war" without thinking of their Hollywood contemporaries - Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night, Grant and Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve.
Cleverly, director Paige Newmark underscores the movie connection by giving the hilarious masquerade ball a Hollywood theme, with Benedick and Beatrice and their co-combatants in this battle of the sexes dressing up as, among others, Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, The Mummy, Betty Boop, The Lone Ranger, Rudolph Valentino, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.
This vibrant, inventive production also drops in many other period touches, such as a nifty verbal reference to one of Winston Churchill's rousing World War II speeches and renditions of Vera Lynn's wartime classic, We'll Meet Again, and the Casablanca theme song, As Time Goes By.
Of course, screwball comedies depended entirely on the central pairing, as does any production of Much Ado About Nothing, which is why Newmark should be praised for bringing together David Davies as Benedick, confirmed bachelor and "valiant trencherman", and Hannah Day as Beatrice, the sharp-tongued mayor's niece who will only marry a real man.
While Davies is all hustle and bustle, a burly, bouncy presence with such a devilish delivery and outsized personality, he reminded me of Jack Black, Day is an angular ice-cool beauty. She can cut him down to size with her rapier-like wit but a look is all she needs. It is a physical contrast that both underscores their innate antagonism (or is it just part of the theatricalised mating ritual?) and a reminder of the attraction of opposites.
When they are on stage together, Newmark's production hits its straps, giving Much Ado About Nothing the drive and energy needed in an expansive outdoor setting where sound can be a problem.
I sat at the top of a slope in the Botanic Garden for the first half and had trouble hearing the dialogue when the actors strayed from the mikes.
While the wonderfully assured, free-flowing and effortlessly funny Davies dominates Much Ado About Nothing, he gets solid support from the large cast of veterans and newcomers.
Stephen Lee makes a very sympathetic Leonato, especially in the darker second half when treachery leads to the shaming of his daughter, Hero, who is cruelly rejected by Benedick's friend Claudio; Sam Longley stamps his own loping, long-legged personality on the verbally infelicitous Dogberry; and big-voiced James Hagan fully inhabits the characters of Leonato's brother Antonio and Dogberry's delightfully daffy Dad's Army-type offsider Verges.
The wartime setting also smooths the play's drastic switch from comedy to near tragedy in the second half, in which the villain of the piece, Don John (Sean Walsh) tricks Claudio (Nick Maclaine) into rejecting his bride Hero (Sophie Lester) at the altar. It's a heartbreaking scene well handled by the cast, with Lester shaking us up with a genuine outpouring of emotion.
Indeed, the wedding scene is so powerful that Claudio's non-response to the news of Hero's "death" is both mystifying and silly. There are not a lot of lines for Claudio to engage with the appalling news but Maclaine simply stands around, as if he has learned that Hero is not dead but off to Busselton for a holiday.
Much Ado About Nothing survived Claudio's coolness and inertia to move briskly toward its rousing finale, in which the audience is invited to sing along as our grandparents would have.