There is justifiable excitement in Sheffield over Samuel West’s remarkably enterprising first season as artistic director, but unfortunately the first production, Much Ado About Nothing, is no more than a modest success.
The strongest narrative element in Much Ado – the courtship of Hero by Claudio, the plot against her, her rejection by Claudio followed by her apparent death, rehabilitation and marriage – comes over quite strongly in Josie Rourke’s production. Georgina Rich is as good a Hero as you could wish for, investing a notoriously monochrome character with some wit and spirit. Nicholas Jones as Leonato, excellent throughout, risks over-playing, but survives, in conveying self-loathing at his own rejection of his disgraced daughter and summons up a fine dignity to put those school bullies, Don Pedro and Claudio, in their place.
Much Ado finds its laughs elsewhere than in the Hero/Claudio plot. However, of the two main conduits of comedy, the “merry war” between Beatrice and Benedick and the low comedy of Dogberry, Verges and the Watch, one is stilted and one is totally misdirected.
As Benedick, West delivers one-liners with style and despatch and his changing persona (a compound of sardonic observer, bluff officer and baffled lover) always convinces. Claire Price as Beatrice sometimes seems to work a little too hard at the comedy. The exchanges between the two entertain without striking sparks.
The Dogberry/Verges scenes are symptomatic of a more general oddity. First impressions of the production in designer Giles Cadle’s sunny Sicilian setting are that it is effectively conventional, with polished delivery of the lines and well-handled crowds of nobles, servants and returning soldiers. In many respects it stays that way, but occasional bizarre developments intrude. Leonato’s brother Antonio is transformed into his sister Innogen (unhelpful in the comic/pathetic duel scene with Don Pedro and Claudio) and the Watch changes gender into a Salvation Army/Band of Hope troop on the warpath.
Dogberry, the constable, is one of the great manglers of words in English literature as well as a model of ignorant vanity – what a little brief authority can do to a man of infinite simplicity! Julia Dearden’s schoolmistressy Northern Irish delivery and evangelical stride – very well done, incidentally – play against the lines and lose the humour.
At the end of it all, this Much Ado About Nothing teases: an enjoyable evening, certainly, but an oddly frustrating one, with too many questions left unanswered.