Italian style and comedy in Much Ado
“I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow, than a man swear he loves me. “
Set in an Italian Contessa’s mansion garden in the Veneto in 1948 as the civil war in Italy against the Fascists is ending, Don Pedro (Ferdy Roberts) returns from the war with his comrades, wit and confirmed bachelor, Benedick (Ralph Davis) and young blade, Claudio (Patrick Osborne). The estate they come back to is run by women. This happens in wartime when men go to fight.
Leonata (Katy Stephens) owns the estate and lives there with her sister Antonia (Joanne Howarth) who busies herself with maintaining the garden, and a magnificent garden it is! Creepers line the walls and the lawns rise on banks and circle round the Globe stage designed by Joanna Parker. Leonata’s beautiful daughter Hero (Nadi Kemp-Sayfi) lives there with her cousin, sharp tongued Beatrice (Lucy Phelps) who is Antonia’s daughter.
Along with Don Pedro comes his illegitimate brother Don John (Oliver Huband) with two sidekicks Boracio (Philip Cumbus, a valiant last minute understudy) and Conrade (Peter Bourke). Boracio and Conrade are dressed as spivs in loud checked jackets and brimmed felt hats. Don John is a “plain dealing villain” and wants to revenge himself on his more loved brother.
Dinner is served in the garden with three women accordionists setting the celebratory atmosphere. Beatrice explains why she chooses to remain unmarried pointing to a man in the Pit who she likens “to a clod”. Her railing against men is illustrated with multiple gestures.
For the ball after dinner, the party dons wicker animal head masks and a furious stamping dance thrills, the wicker heads well disguising the wearers. Don Pedro has to negotiate a marriage between Claudio and Hero. In disguise, Benedick talks to Beatrice. We know what a great comic actor Ferdy Roberts is, but the wit of Don Pedro undoing his pony tail, so his hair falls as full romantic hero, and preening himself to flirt with Beatrice is a real treat.
It is the scenes when Benedick is tricked into overhearing that Beatrice has fallen for him that are the best comedy in all of Shakespeare and in Lucy Bailey’s hands this is superlative pleasure. As Benedick tries to listen unobserved he gets into the shape of the wheelbarrow in order to crawl behind it and climbs up the creeper, narrowly escaping Antonia’s clipping shears. He later seeks refuge in a pot that held a cedar tree making the Globe Pit resound with laughter.
Beatrice too has to overhear how smitten Benedick is with her so the deception can change the attitude of these two against marriage. The happy result is Benedick looking soppy in a dressing gown and Beatrice similarly infatuated.
I have never seen the first act of Much Ado so well performed and directed. The second act is altogether darker because that is the way that Shakespeare wrote it. Don John’s plot to subvert Claudio’s marriage casts a sombre note as Hero is dreadfully humiliated. The Dogberry comedy never quite does it for me, again it is the writing of it that fails. What shines through in the church is Benedick’s decision to side with Beatrice in her confirmation of Hero’s innocence. Such a shame that this ugliness of plot has to be included in this beautiful production.
Hero’s funeral has 13 accordionists, five of them playing for real! I admired the casting of this play; there is real chemistry between Beatrice and Benedick and the gender switching of Leonato and Antonio works well in context, as well as giving starring opportunities for two mature women. Benedick’s conclusion “Man is a giddy thing” rings true. An inventive dance joyously closes the performance to remember!
This is a Much Ado not to be missed!
Much Ado About Nothing
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Lucy Bailey
Rachel Hannah Clarke
Director: Lucy Bailey
Designer: Joanna Parker
Choreographer: Georgina Lamb
Composer: Orlando Gough
Musical Director: Karen Street
Fight Director: Renny Krupinski
Running Time:Three hours minutes with one interval
Booking to 23rd October 2022