Review: Bell Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing ·
State Theatre Centre of WA, 7 August ·
Review by Jan Hallam ·
What a funny night it was. First, there was the sad news that cast member Suzanne Pereira had fallen ill and was in hospital. Then followed the announcement that director James Evans would step into the breach as Antonio.
Two roles, one director’s script, highlighted and annotated to the inch of its life, and, fortuitously, a sharp opening night suit and tie. Designer Pip Runciman could not have ordered better for her clever, compact touring unit.
Did the turn of events have any effect on the safe delivery of Shakespeare’s sharp, dark comedy?
Perhaps the rhythm of the first scene or two felt unsettled and unpredictable with players looking cautiously to their somewhat sweaty boss, ready to counter any signs of faltering. But Bell doesn’t hire hey nonny no ninnies, so the play about love overcoming evil played inexorably on to a room falling madly in love with this performance, and, be still my heart, Shakespeare.
Evans, in his day job, has presented a thought-provoking production of a play that sends a shaft of horror down this reviewer’s spine. It is a complex discussion on what was true 420 years ago (its first outing was in 1599) and is, horrifically, true today – some men (meaning many men in this patriarchy of ours) view with suspicion and defensiveness women who are cleverer than them, and with ownership – lustful or otherwise – whenever the mood takes them. Somewhere in between there’s patronising dismissiveness.
These discourses are played out by the raking down of Hero, a young, vibrant heiress who is wooed by a Duke on behalf of one of his young officers, then consequently gifted to Claudio by an apparently doting father.
You see the problem immediately. On this occasion, Hero is pretty smitten with the idea of hitching up to Claudio. What else is she to do with her life?
Then there’s the sparring, prickling, mouthy love developing between Hero’s cousin Beatrice (Shakespeare’s version of a muted but still untamed shrew) and Benedick, the Duke’s go-to-guy for good times.
Here is the model of true love, for what it’s worth. Witness Bea (a fiery Zindzi Okenyo) and Ben (a jestering Duncan Ragg) and you see how ideal coupledom will be represented in literature and theatre (and subsequently other mediums) down the ages, think Bogey and Bacall, Hepburn and Tracey.
The play gives space for these two couplings to circle and swirl, mirror and pervert, question and confirm the combative nature of relationships we have had to endure for centuries.
Enter Don John, the resident evil. A sulking, skulking bastard brother to the Duke, who hates all this laughing and goo-ing and wooing highlighting his miserable non-state, so he plots to destroy Hero’s reputation for no other reason than he can.
The tragic outrage of this single act of evil is that the other men in this play enable him to succeed. He is believed and Hero is not. He’s a man, she is so very obviously not.
This is where the Evans’ production steps out of a traditional rendering of Hero as the helpless, swooning victim.
Vivienne Awosoga’s Hero is mad, boiling mad. She does not accept her fate as fallen woman without first serving it up to her morally frail lover and her father who has turned so easily from doting to damning.
From this distance, it may be at the expense of Beatrice’s primacy as exemplar of the warrior woman. Her injunction to Benedick to avenge the wrong inflicted on her cousin falls flat. Her fabulous line, that if she were a man, she would eat Claudio’s heart in the marketplace, seems a little empty given her cousin skinned him alive in the previous scene.
Where the anger leaves off, there’s the comedy and this production exploits it to the last giggle. Special mention must be made of Mandy Bishop’s exquisitely unstable constable, Dogberry, worth the entrance price alone. Ragg is a stand-up natural, and his Benedick woos the audience at times with more enthusiasm than the girlfriend. He probably needs to watch that. It might not end well for him.
These are merely ruminations. This production is such a lot of fun and the opening night audience was transported to a happy place, reviewer included. That’s until you turn out the light and remember the horror you have just paid witness to – and to which we are all complicit.
Pictured top: Vivienne Awosoga as Hero, David Whitney as Leonato and Will McDonald as Claudio. Photo: Clare Hawley.