Much Ado About Nothing: I wanted more

Bard on the Beach presented Much Ado About Nothing in 2017.

Director John Murphy’s Much Ado About Nothing is stylish—but there’s more to the script than that.

Let’s be clear: Much Ado About Nothing is about something. Director John Murphy’s production accesses the play’s depths, but only intermittently. Too often, it gets distracted by its own inventive surfaces.

Shakespeare sets his comedy in Messina, Italy, and Murphy updates the time period to 1959. In Murphy’s version, Benedick and the other men don’t return from battle, they come back from a film shoot.

The basic story stays the same, of course: the witty Beatrice and Benedick mock marriage and exchange insults until their friends trick them into acknowledging the underlying passion they feel for one another. And, in the darker trickery of the subplot, Donna Johnna (Don John in the original), convinces Claudio that Hero, his bride-to-be, is wanton, and Claudio publicly humiliates her at the altar.

In lots of ways, setting Much Ado in the golden age of Italian cinema makes sense. The supposed war in the original always feels like a bit of a toy battle anyway. The script is obsessed with artifice and role-play. And, like the world of Shakespeare’s story, the period is both glamorous and sexist. Shakespeare unmasks the cruel dynamics of status and public image in Much Ado, and, in one of the most potent moments of this adaptation, the humiliated Hero is set upon by paparazzi. When her father, Leonato, says that she is ruined, he holds up a tabloid and declares, “She is lost in a pit of ink.”

That said, Murphy’s numerous changes to the script get annoying. Every time I heard a word such as soundtrack, soundstage, or screenplay, I felt like a dog that had just spotted a squirrel: I was distracted. The adaptation calls attention to itself at the expense of audience immersion. And there are passages, including a sequence in which three different characters ride motor scooters that are crowd-pleasing but laborious.

The overall tone of Murphy’s mounting is enthusiastic and that works fine, as far as it goes. Kevin Macdonald makes a frank and funny Benedick, bantering with Amber Lewis’s Beatrice as if the two of them were playing a spirited game of ping-pong, and, when Beatrice admits she loves him, whooping in delight as if his team had just won the Stanley Cup. There’s intelligence in Macdonald’s performance, in his mastery of Benedick’s tricky language. And Macdonald is emotionally present even as the story darkens.

Step for athletic step, Amber Lewis matches him as Beatrice. Verbal mastery, inventiveness, playfulness, physical skill: it’s all there. Lewis is particularly funny in the scene in which Beatrice’s friends pretend not to notice her as she skulks in the rosebushes while they chat about how madly in love with Beatrice Benedick is.

And Julien Galipeau’s Claudio is a revelation. Claudio is the guy who shames Hero, remember, and usually he’s played as one of the dicks in a whole pack of dicks, but, because Galipeau fully exposes Claudio’s innocence and vulnerability, we are reminded that both sexes pay a price for sexism and status-consciousness. Late in the play, Claudio sings to the dishonoured Hero; Galipeau, who has recently graduated from Studio 58, makes it heartbreaking.

I also want to sing the praises of another young actor, Chris Cochrane, who plays both the advice-giving Friar Francis and Verges, a member of the comic constabulary. With his broom of a moustache and wind-up-toy walk, Cochrane’s Verges is a delightfully absurd invention. And, often after very quick changes, Cochrane brings gravitas to the friar. Now, that’s acting.

Ashley O’Connell, who plays Dogberry, the leader of the Watch, gets some good licks in—notably in the “I am an ass” refrain. He also struggles at times to find the comedy gold in the character’s speeches, which are largely gibberish. Played by David M. Adams and Austin Eckert, the remaining two members of the Watch don’t help him out much.

Parmiss Sehat’s Hero is also disappointing. Sehat makes the young-actor mistake of showing us big emotions rather than feeling them and trusting us to witness.

Still, it’s in the disgracing of Hero—in locating the cruelty that fuels all of the comedy—that this production finally gets its bearings. Leonato, Hero’s father, believes the lies, and with all of the hurt and rage that Andrew Wheeler brings to Leonato, the character’s rejection of his daughter brought tears to my eyes.

I wish that this sense of underlying danger had pervaded more of this production—that it had made Beatrice and Benedick more vulnerable, for instance, that it had allowed us to understand that their humour is a form of camp, a kind of armour that they use to protect themselves in the perilous negotiations of the heart. If that level of subtlety had been there, we might also have seen greater warmth, more ironic awareness, beneath their badinage once their positions were more secure.

I don’t mean to be peevish about any of this. There are huge accomplishments in this production as-is. Costumer Christine Reimer supplies some gorgeous dresses, especially for Hero, who gets a full-skirted white frock with black appliqued flowers early on, and a wedding dress with a bow and short veil that is innocence itself. Director Murphy turns the scene changes into Fellini-esque musical fantasies. And he creates some surprising passages, including one in which Adams sings “Sigh no more, my ladies” in Italian while he and his back-up trio perform a hilariously hip little dance.

Mostly, I liked what I got. I got a lot. I wanted more.

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING By William Shakespeare. Adapted and directed by John Murphy. A Bard on the Beach production at the BMO Mainstage on Thursday, June 15. Continues in rep until September 23.

To purchase tickets go to https://bardonthebeach.org/tickets, or phone 604-739-0559.

 

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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