It has been 33 years since Queensland Theatre Company last produced Much Ado About Nothing, so it’s high time Brisbane had a professional production of Shakespeare’s masterful comedy. Spoiler alert: This review contains important plot points of the play, but frankly you’ve had over 400 years to read or to see it, so… read on, Macduff.
Dashing Claudio is in love with sweet Hero, and she with him, but both are shy youngsters. Benedick and Beatrice have engaged in a merry war of wits for many a year, and both are equally scornful of love, matrimony, and each other. In this contemporized production, all four are at a tropical island resort, with the atmosphere of merriment pervading the air as the women await the return of the Prince Don Pedro, his soldiers, and his brother Don John. The narrative unfolds with the revelry.
This production gets off to a slightly slow start while characters are introduced and scenes are set, but it rapidly picks up pace. Once in flight, it milks every line for its comedy and how the audience did laugh. Jason Klarwein certainly shows his skills in his mainstage directorial debut for QTC. Seamless blocking, both within and between scenes, means the narrative flows beautifully and the meaning of every moment is crystal clear (granted, the very occasional word is updated to ensure Shakespeare’s intended meaning is always understood). The audience is thus guided through every aspect of falling in love: the laughs, the uncertainty, the joy, the vulnerability, the contentment, the loneliness, the passion and the betrayal.
Richard Roberts’ design is crisp, clean and sharp. The revolving set (interior and exterior of a resort room) aids the seamless transitions between scenes and effectively captures the tranquil atmosphere of a beach resort – I could almost smell the beach, and taste the cocktails. This serves as a stark juxtaposition to the mayhem to follow. Ben Hughes’ lighting design is exactly as good lighting should be -unobtrusive. It subtly shifts time and mood and helps focuses the audience’s attention. Indeed, my only real criticism of this production would be the last few seconds of the show, where Hero breaks away from the others and has a moment of reflection. Intended to leave the night on a note of ambiguity, it falls short of the mark and instead feels a little confusing and detracts momentarily from the joy of the production.
It is the attention to detail in character creation that makes this production extraordinary. In some renditions, Benedick and Beatrice’s relationship can overshadow the other characters, but this Much Ado About Nothing feels more like an ensemble piece, as the smallest of characters is nuanced, interesting, and fun. Quietly pulling everyone’s strings, matchmaker Don Pedro (Tama Matheson) is a mysterious mélange of merry and melancholy. His bother, Don John, is a sullen, mischievous lad, who delights in plotting to destroy lives. Leonato (Bryan Probets) is serene and an excellent counterpoint to the other boisterous, blokey young men. The versatile Liz Buchanan (Dogberry), Kathryn McIntyre (Margaret) and Megan Shorey (Verges) each play a few roles (some male, in the Shakespearean tradition of gender bending)- on the island they are the help, the security, and the entertainment (all with fabulous singing voices). With impeccable comic timing, Buchanan in particular is proof of the adage that there are no small roles, only small actors.
As for Claudio and Hero, I often dislike them. They can be quite insipid characters, and Claudio can be downright horrible. In 2016, it is hard to understand why Hero doesn’t just walk away when he publicly humiliates her because he believes she is no longer a chaste maid. Ellen Bailey and Patrick Dwyer, however, inject them with tenderness and personality. Dwyer’s Claudio is one of the lads but has his naive heart in the right place. Bailey’s Hero is sweet and playful and we feel her utter devastation and helplessness when Claudio crushes her, and admire the strength in her response. We understand that theirs is an impetuous, young love that is renewed only by extraordinary forgiveness.
Still, Christen O’Leary as Beatrice and Hugh Parker as Benedick do steal the show. Their skirmish of wits is sharp and they don’t skip a beat as they trade quips with breakneck speed. O’Leary’s Beatrice is fabulously fierce, and Parker’s Benedick is wonderfully charming. Both are a beautiful, complicated mess of cock-sure and insecurity, and their joy upon discovering their love for each other is utterly infectious. It’s very easy to play these characters as mere vehicles for their witty banter, but in the hands of these consummate actors they are all too real and human in their vulnerabilities.
Like a glass of champagne, this production starts out light and frothy, has a kick to it, and leaves you aglow and abuzz. This is merry, joyous and accessible Shakespeare. Come and see Much Ado About Nothing, and fall horribly in love.
Note: Audio described performances are available on Saturday 7 May & Thursday 12 May.