In a move that will cause sadness to a great many theatre-goers, production company Cheek by Jowl is bowing out of the UK theatre scene after 17 years. The company made its name with a series of though-provoking productions of classical drama and modern plays and with this, its swan song, it has more than met its enduringly high standards.
Before Much Ado About Nothing, the last Shakespearean outing from the company was the all-male As You Like It, a production that played a great deal on the sexual ambiguities in the play. It is a theme that is partly returned to in Declan Donnellan s Much Ado where Don Pedro s soldiers are obviously more at home with each other than they are dealing with the pleasantries of Leonato s Messina household. Set in the late Victorian era, the soldiers behave as if they have barely escaped the confines of their public schools. It is a world in which women are distinctly shut out and the men revel in their own company.
In particular, Don Pedro s wooing of Hero on behalf of Claudio takes on a distinctly homo-erotic air; he looks upon his protégé with barely disguised longing and, when Hero does agree to marry Claudio, he rushes to embrace Pedro before his supposed beloved. Stephen Mangan is excellent as a Don Pedro who, disconcertingly, resembles Lord Lucan.
Matthew Macfadyen s Benedick is a braying, oafish individual who one senses is dragged reluctantly into wooing Saskia Reeves sprightly Beatrice. This is not a production in which one gets the impression that Beatrice and Benedick s verbal sparring masks a well-hidden love. The verbal sparring between the two has real bite.
Not everything works: Paul Goodwin s Don John is one of the least villainous villains and neither Bohdan Poraj s Claudio nor Sarita Choudhary s Hero really convince as devoted lovers.
Nevertheless, this is a thought-provoking, intelligent production that brings life to a play often thought of as mere verbal froth. As the play ends, one does wonder at what sort of future the two couples have together; much like theatre-goers have to face without Cheek by Jowl.