Wilton’s Music Hall
Another year, another Much Ado. Yay! And I was particularly thrilled to be catching a production from the Shakespeare Tobacco Factory, a Bristol-based company about whom I have repeatedly heard excellent things but have never managed to see “in the wild” as it were.
This was a vaguely modern-day, vaguely Italian, entirely pleasing production which opened by giving us flashes of the war the soldiers were to return from – Claudio was honoured as expected, but Don John’s treachery looked much more like desertion. Given Georgia Frost’s Don John was the only female soldier I did wonder where they might be going with that, but the answer seemed to be nowhere in particular.
Messina was a slightly decrepit* courtyard with some trees and plenty of space for partying (sensible for a travelling production), populated with as wonderful a group of people as you could ask to spend time with.
Hannah Bristow’s Hero was smart, slightly awkward and very sweet, and absolutely exceptional through the accusation scene – she was the one I couldn’t keep my eyes off. Imran Momen’s Claudio seemed to me incredibly undeserving since he topped off all the anger with also coming across as a little bit stupid (I am sure this was deliberate, and as I feel I say in every review of Much Ado, no blame attaches to Mr Momen for failing to make me like Claudio). But it was also easy to see it as a mirroring of Hero’s parents’ marriage there – since the production went down the route of turning Antonio into Hero’s mother (combining the role with Ursula), and Alice Barclay’s performance was all brains while Christopher Bianchi’s Leonato was all bonhomie but definitely not the sharpest tool in the box…** Regardless of their future prospects of happiness, “Kill Claudio” got a laugh. I felt like cheering.
The other place where Hero really shone was in the overhearing scene where she rather rips Beatrice to shreds. I got the impression this time, which I have never had before, that Hero was deliberately telling Beatrice what she really thought of her, that it was something she wanted to say, and that she couldn’t do it to Beatrice’s face because, as Hero says, “If I should speak, she would mock me into air: O! she would laugh me out of myself, press me to death with wit”. The speeches broke Beatrice down entirely, which I rather resented – it didn’t seem to me that she deserved to be destroyed as Benedick very much isn’t…
One last note on the B-couple plot – for me, having Don John be a woman actually seemed to take something away from the dynamic of the accusation when it isn’t three men standing up to denounce a girl. Georgia Frost’s performance overall was delightfully vile but there wasn’t quite enough grounding in the play (or in this production) for me to suspend my disbelief that having apparently failed as a soldier she mightn’t rather prefer the company of other women to despising them and tearing them down purely to cross Claudio and her brother. After all, as a plot to vex the princes, it is telling that Hero is the only one who comes to any harm.
I liked Alex Wilson’s Borachio, for his scheming ways and his this-far-but-no-farther morality, but then I often do. The soldiers (all five of them) were a right martial lot, making wagers on women and swaggering about – they’d given Zachary Powell’s Don Pedro a really annoying habit of clicking his fingers which really worked in the context of a successful military leader. I am still puzzling over trying to fit in a female Don Pedro into the company – although I could easily make it a story of disdain, perceived and leading to rejection in its turn. Anyway, suffice it to say that this Don Pedro seemed to deserve his fate of winning money off Benedick but not winning a wife, and this was the rare occasion where I didn’t want to run off and write him a happy ending. The watch were decidedly un-martial (hot pants and hi-vis) – Louise Mai Newberry’s Dogberry was as bafflingly daft as you could wish.
On to Beatrice and Benedick. It’s important to me that you know I love all Benedicks, but Geoffrey Lumb was a particular delight of world-weary sweetness whose wit did seem, as Margaret says “as blunt as the fencer’s foils, which hit, but hurt not”. I did wonder if he would actually be able to manage Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s absolute firebrand, who I don’t think stood still once, but they came together delightfully as Beatrice learnt some measure of kindness and solemnity through Hero’s travails and Benedick learnt the power of a little righteous anger.
One other scene stood out for me, which was the masked ball where everyone came as superheroes and you can probably guess most of the costume choices. Of course Beatrice would be Bananaman, by far the most underrated of all superheroes ever. But if there was any symbolism in why Benedick picked one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and specifically Donatello, it escaped me.***
The music choices were great (and the cast got to show off without being out-of-character about it), with Margaret taking the role of bad musician which of course she really wasn’t. They sang something at Hero’s (first, abortive) wedding about damask roses which I really liked but did not recognise and cannot now identify.**** Goddess of the Night worked well set to the usual tune of Abide With Me. Strangely, though, when the cast reprised Sigh No More at the end for me it veered unusually close to The Passenger in its hey nonny nonnies.*****
The only other thing I noticed was the length, which I’m blaming at least partially on Wilton’s being very chilly.****** I felt like they cut not a single line – there were definitely some I don’t think I’ve heard before, and I’m not sure I’ll miss them if I don’t hear them again (I remember in particular early speech of Benedick’s which talked about Vulcan being a carpenter and did nothing for me. If it’s one of your favourites, I do apologise). And in fact, in light of this and the next show I went to, I would very much like to urge folks to cut their plays, especially if including wordless montages and not planning on having their characters talk at the speed of a screwball comedy.
Overall, though, I don’t regret spending more time in the company of the inhabitants of Messina, especially not when it’s such a vibrant production that brings wonderful fresh insight to their goings on…
* But admittedly not as decrepit as Wilton’s is overall…
** Ha. My note written at the time says “Me loves feisty mam Ursula, especially when slapping Claudio. Who was just. So. Thick. So thick.” I think that sums it up nicely.
*** Answers on a postcard!
**** Damask roses is not a helpful phrase when trying to google.
***** Which is an odd ear-worm, let me tell you.
****** I nearly wrote surprisingly chilly, but it’s really not at all surprising.