Much Ado About Nothing is a romantic comedy with a twist. Hero and Claudio love each other; but Claudio is fooled into thinking Hero has been unfaithful, and jilts her at the altar. Beatrice and Benedick have a romantic past and are still striking sparks off one another; their friends trick them both into thinking the other has declared their love, and so they are brought together. The plot against Claudio and Hero’s marriage is uncovered by the comic policeman Dogberry. Hero is lying low while her name is cleared, and a grieving Claudio, believing her dead, vows to compensate her father by marrying his choice of bride who is (of course) Hero.
This is the eighth Demi-Paradise production in Lancaster castle. It is mostly set in three historic interiors – the Shire Hall and Crown Court, and the eight-hundred year old Hadrian’s Tower. The second half opens in the medieval priory church for the jilting scene, for which the audience (limited to sixty each performance) are seated as though they were at a real wedding.
Perambulating between the scenes is accompanied by the actors singing, though you almost never see them; negotiating the maze-like corridors of the castle to this accompaniment has a particular magic of its own, and you are never quite sure where you will end up, or how close you will be to the actors when you get there.
Director Sue McCormick makes inventive use of the multiple levels, exits and entrances of these rooms – the Crown Court has at least three levels and nine entrances - and the pace never falters. The cast routinely address the audience (for example in the priory church), and are often amongst them.
One inspired change to the original is to replace Dogberry’s ageing sidekick Verges with ‘Mrs Dogberry’; the interplay between the two (Howard Chadwick and Nicola Jayne Ingram) and their variously baffled or defiant victims is one of the many comic highlights.
Gemma North as Beatrice and Richard Hand as Benedick are superb, especially in the overhearing scene, ducking and diving into and out of sight amongst a very squashed audience in Hadrian’s tower. Lisa-Marie Hoctor and James Jowett supply the play’s emotional heart as the not quite star-crossed lovers Hero and Claudio, effortlessly holding the audience as they fall apart at the altar.
This Much Ado is a subtle and vivacious performance which makes the most of its unique setting.