BETH Stewart’s production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, on stage at Shaftesbury Arts Centre until 19th October, is full of invention and stylish interpretation.
From the opening moment, as the returning army strikes a tableau on stage to sing the traditional English song Rose Red, it’s obvious that the setting is the 1940s and that this is a different reading. It was even nicknamed Much Ado – The Musical by the cast, and music plays an important role in the progress of the story, chosen with skill and sometimes performed by the versatile cast.
The director’s notes make it clear that rather than the conventional spotlight onto the relationship of Beatrice and Benedick, she wants to concentrate on all three love stories, also focussing on Claudio and Hero and on Margaret and Borachio.
And she obviously faced a problem in casting this big-cast show, with a company which, however versatile and talented, are not trained for the “cast-of-five plays Shakespeare” of the professional summer touring shows.
Having Beatrice and Benedick doubling as the Watch, Hero as George Seacole and Margaret as Verges looked bizarre.
The charismatic Mark Boyden plays the villainous Don John with melodramatic relish, and Sam Skey’s Borachio has all the music to look after, too.
Philip White belies his 15 years to produce a passionate and heart-breaking reading of Claudio, and Katy Darragh, so good in The Cobbler’s Daughter in the summer, is a touching Hero, using her powerful singing voice to provide a poignant She Moved Through the Fair.
Steven McDadd is the decent and deceived Don Pedro, with Jerome Swann putting in another subtle performance as Leonato.
There is no doubt that Jess Sims is a skilled actor, as she showed in Beggar’s Bush, and she brings a strong, humorous and passionate Beatrice to the story, but she doesn’t move well, and is paired with the suave Benedick of Alex Chase, a ballroom dancer who seems to have been directed to leap on and off the blocks that make up the set.
I can’t imagine why Mr Boyden was not cast as Benedick and Mr Chase as Don John, which would have given both balance and gravitas – but I am not the casting director.
There are many memorable moments in this production, which is brave enough to approach a classic text with a new eye.