With memories of Marianne Elliott's wonderful 1950s Cuban staging of the play still very fresh in the mind, Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory has set itself a challenge taking on Much Ado About Nothing so soon. On the other hand, the play would seem to play to the company's strengths following its deft negotiation of Love's Labour's Lost last year.
But while director Dan Hilton's staging has finesse and, as usual, is clearly and intelligently spoken, it seems lacking in the necessary comic fizz. Of course, it would be invidious to make a direct comparison between the work of a company which is heavily subsidised with one which operates on the thinnest of shoestrings. And the difficulties of a play peppered with punning undoubtedly contributed to the quiescence of an audience composed chiefly of students. Still, the company fared better with the similarly wordy Love's Labour's Lost.
Hilton, like Gregory Doran for the RSC in 2002, has opted to update the play to the 1930s, a time, as Hilton notes, with one foot in the Catholic and conservative world in which the obsession with honour makes perfect sense.
Thus, the world of chivalry and courtliness has an ugly underbelly which is highlighted by Hilton's decision to pair the play with Othello, a work similarly concerned with "the green-eyed monster" of jealousy, brought about by false and malign allegations of sexual infidelity. The key scene here is the shaming of Hero at her wedding by her bridegroom Claudio, and Hilton and cast duly give weight to “the dark side” of this sunny comedy.
Paul Currier does well as Don John, a “plain dealing villain”, bent on doing whatever mischief he can to his brother Don Pedro and any of his friends. Bill Wallis, who starred last year in the company's ill-fated Titus Andronicus, returns with a mercifully restrained Dogberry, surely one of the most thankless parts ever penned by Shakespeare. Lucy Black is suitably tart as Beatrice but lacks nuance. Jay Villiers fares better as Benedick, but the couple fail to strike many sparks off one another, though things do pick up with the joint gulling scenes.
Musicians Vicki Burke and Richard Stephenson provide tasteful accompaniment on guitar, mandolin and harps – even if the masque feels a little under-powered - and the production is well paced and thoughtfully detailed, often lending intelligent illumination to the, at times, deeply obscure text. For me, this production, while decent enough, falls short of the company's highest standards, but it is likely to be welcomed by many.
- Pete Wood