The Globe Theatre is kicking off its first full summer season in two years with a thoroughly enjoyable garden party, and welcoming you to attend William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.
Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s most popular and uncharacteristically funny comedies. It centres around a pair of romances, one of which initially appears straightforward, until it is complicated by vicious gossip, and the other appears improbable, until the antagonistic couple is tricked into admitting their true feelings. While it relies on ideas of honour and strictly enforced gender roles that are largely alien to modern audiences, its sheer vivacity and playfulness mean that a good production will always feel contemporary, and this is a very good production.
One criticism often leveled at The Globe’s approach to Shakespeare is that despite its replica Elizabethan theatre, their interpretations of his plays are often non-traditional, (sometimes avant garde). There is little here, however, to alienate more conservative members of the audience. Probably the greatest innovation, from director Lucy Bailey, is the choice of setting. The action still takes place in Italy, but it is shifted to April of 1945, as a group of anti-fascist fighters return from a war of national liberation to embrace the pleasures of civilian life. This is a clever historical transposition, which allows the partying partisans to prance about in fabulous forties fashions.
Some dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists may bristle about the decision to gender-switch Leonato, the governor of Messina. However, as Leonata, Katy Stephens conveys such hospitality and attentiveness, that it’s hard to believe that the Bard hadn’t always intended the role to be an Italian mamma. Her flirtatious interactions with her house guests add an extra dimension to the play, and the fact that she is a woman somehow makes it more shocking when she damns her daughter, for a supposed failure to adhere to patriarchal expectations of chastity. Leonato’s brother is also switched – with Antonio becoming Antonia – and the re-entry of men into a society where women have assumed positions of authority brings further subtle enrichment to the narrative, and underscores the battle of the sexes and fears about the erosion of social order, which the play has always encompassed.
Perhaps the most polarising decision will be the inclusion of onstage musicians; a group of five accordionists. While squeeze-box music is appropriate to the location and the period, outside of the bagpipes and children’s recorders, there are few more divisive instruments, and to emphasise an emotional crunch-point, the audience is confronted with a baker’s dozen of them.
Productions of Much Ado About Nothing succeed or fail on the strength of the fractious relationship between Benedick and Beatrice. He affects jaded misogyny, while she bridles at the presumption of male authority, but as they trade barbs, the audience realises before they do that the pair are destined for one another. So do their friends and family, who conspire to bring them together, providing an opportunity for delightful slapstick as the characters eavesdrop on conversations. Ralph Davis’ Benedick has nonchalant charm that never obscures his true feelings, while Lucy Phelps’ Beatrice revels in devilish, but good-natured, needling. It is a joy to watch.
After playing Hamlet, to mixed reviews at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse earlier this year, George Fouracres returns to a more familiar comic role, as Dogberry, the constable of the night watch. The foppish uniform is a good fit for Fouracre’s interpretation of the part as a sort of Gilbert and Sullivan over-promoted pompous dullard, and the audience was clearly appreciative.
This hugely entertaining, and frequently laugh-out-loud funny Much Ado About Nothing bodes well for the rest of the season. They simply don’t make romcoms like this any more.