Much Ado About Nothing is not exactly one of the Bard’s surefire, back-of-the-net hits. It’s not The Dream, The Scottish Play or the one about The Dane. It is one of his more awkward comedies, which treats love and marriage as cruel tricks that, mainly, men play on women. It needs a safe pair of hands to be an enjoyable night out. Fortunately, in their 20th season, Bristol’s Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory (stf to their friends) prove to be exactly that. The architecturally impressive Wilton’s Music Hall makes for an atmospheric venue too. It all adds up to a winning opportunity to brush up your Shakespeare.
As we take our seats, the sound of crickets and a sun-dappled town square welcome us to a Sicily that feels familiar – this is a case of Brits on holiday. In a strong decision from director Elizabeth Freestone, we never leave this one location. This makes staging straightforward and unshowy, giving us room to enjoy the performances – which we certainly do. It is contemporary dress. The military uniforms have a ring of today’s UN peacekeeping to them. The superhero fancy dress, here taking the place of the masked ball action, is more clearly 2019. It runs through the Avengers to, in my favourite gag of the night, Bananaman. We get mobile phones and the millennial hipster weapon of choice – the ukulele – is wielded by Margaret (Bethan Mary-James) to provide the music. None of this is done to look clever or edgy. The creative team’s choices are confident, yes, but clearly led by the text. The cast revel in the japes and tomfoolery when they need to but maintain their focus on universal human truths about love throughout.
Geoffrey Lumb leads the charge as Benedick – a part he, initially at least, makes a handsome grinning idiot with aplomb. He is more than matched by Dorothea Myer-Bennett as a grounded, cutting Beatrice. Indeed, if their ding-dong love tussle is a competition – which it is of course – Myer-Bennett wins the laugh count by a nose. They both have a great deal of fun, though, and aren’t afraid of a conspiratorial wink or two to the audience in their monologues. The whole cast is technically strong. The text flows. Prose rather than poetry, its delivery is relaxed and informal rather than strictly policed, but all the better for it. Every word, thought and intention is clear as a bell.
The fun dissipates in the second half as beloved Hero (a thoroughly engaging but inevitably underused Hannah Bristow) is – spoiler alert – publicly shamed and persuaded to fake her own death on her wedding day. Her father’s reaction to the accusation of dishonour must count as one of the most misogynistic moments in Shakespeare: better to be dead than talk to a man at midnight it seems. There’s no hiding from it and, as Leonato, Christopher Bianchi pursues his task with convincing ire. Alice Barclay’s fiery rage as wife and mother Ursula goes someway to restore balance. Louise Mai Newberry is welcome comic relief, therefore, in Act Two. Her 400-year-old gags, as Constable Dogberry, are something of a trial yet she wins us over in jobsworth, hi-vis workwear with irresistible energy. Her lantern, a builder’s torch, flashes round the dusty darkness of Wilton’s Music Hall with a pleasing theatricality too.
If you are new to Much Ado about Nothing this is an accessible, open-hearted production full of rewards. If you are a more knowledgeable fan it will make you laugh anew. This is all thanks to the cast and creative team who tell their tale simply, yet skilfully, with a huge amount of charm.
Written by: William Shakespeare
Directed by: Elizabeth Freestone
Movement Direction by: Maria Clarke
Playing until: 23 November 2019
Booking link: https://www.wiltons.org.uk/whatson/586-much-ado-about-