Bell Shakespeare’s new production is a uniquely Australian interpretation with something profound to say.
Mandy Bishop and Zindzi Okenyo in Much Ado About Nothing. Photo: Clare Hawley.
Bell Shakespeare’s nationally touring production of Much Ado About Nothing, directed by James Evans, takes a jagged jewel of a play about perennially imbalanced social attitudes toward gender and sex and spins it with modern, rehabilitative exuberance. Charlotte Perkins Gilman contended: ‘A man’s honour always seems to want to kill a woman to satisfy it’, a thesis to which Shakespeare’s tragedies adhere. This comedy – albeit a hair’s breadth from calamity – teaches lessons still applicable after 420 years, via the staged feint of Hero’s demise and revival. Antonio, played (to great effect as a woman) by Suzanne Pereira, speaks to Hero’s accusers: ‘Slander’d to death by villains… Boys, apes, braggarts, Jacks, milksops!’ and in so doing articulates the play’s ultimate injustice redress: the calling out of entitled bro-culture and the fallacy of Hero’s sexist condemnation.
Much Ado is mostly referenced as the progenitor of the anti-love-at-first-sight rom-com trope. Beatrice and Benedick, only after much ‘skirmish of wit between them’, find out (surprise!) that they are actually mad for each other. Zindzi Okenyo’s Beatrice, while defiantly robust and charming in the first half, comes into her real power in the second when she delivers the speech defending her cousin Hero (Vivienne Awosoga) against Claudio (Will McDonald), her intended husband turned persecutor: ‘O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the marketplace.’
Duncan Ragg is excellent as the indomitable bachelor, Benedick. He enlivens Shakespeare’s camp dialogue; at first seemingly more enamoured with his soldier pals than to ever marry and ‘hang [his] bugle in an invisible baldrick’. Ragg is in possession of a particularly expressive face and vocal range, utilised in the mannered set-piece where Benedick, hiding behind pot-plants, overhears Claudio, Don Pedro (Danny Ball), and Leonato (David Whitney) deliberately entrapping him into falling for Beatrice. Much of the success of the play’s redemption of its male characters pivots on Benedick’s affability, sensitivity, and readiness to actually listen to women. Ragg has a delightful quivery jaw in love, and yet turns redoubtable when challenging ‘Lord Lackbeard’ aka Claudio, his former comrade, and quitting the company of Don Pedro, in disgust, for their slander of Hero.
Designer Pip Runciman manifests a generic upscale contemporary Australian stage; versatile and put to good use in the masquerade ball turned catwalk scene by sound designer Andrée Greenwell, as the characters ‘vogue’ the promenade in pop-culture masks, tapping the bawdiness of Shakespeare’s original text and serving accessible laughs no matter what the audience’s level of familiarity. Likewise, the clowns, led by Mandy Bishop as Dogberry, maintain the levity. Perhaps too blithe is the villains’ delivery; surely Don John’s ‘If I had my mouth, I would bite; if I had my liberty, I would do my liking. In the meantime, let me be that I am, and seek not to alter me’ should be a moustache-twirling delight, yet Paul Reichstein offers it somewhat tepid.
Nevertheless, this is a truly fun production, and a uniquely Australian interpretation with something profound to say. Take your teenagers, or your parents, or both, but do go and see it.
4.5 stars out of 5 ★★★★☆
Much Ado About Nothing
presented by Bell Shakespeare
directed by James Evans
17-27 July 2019
Arts Centre Melbourne
Touring nationally: 12 July – 24 November 2019