IT’S 20 years since Andrew Hilton took the ambitious and risky step of establishing a theatre company to perform Shakespeare – for five years – in the former Imperial Tobacco factory in Bristol’s Southville.
In the intervening years the area has seen a resurgence of popularity, and the company, now known as stf, is a regular feature in the city’s thriving, buzzing, arts scene. Andrew stepped down after the 2017 season, and Elizabeth Freestone took over, directing a memorable Henry V last year, and now following up with Much Ado About Nothing, on stage at the Tobacco Factory until 9th November, and moving to London’s atmospheric Wilton’s Music Hall from 12th to 23rd November.
The 11-strong cast (fewer than in Hilton’s days) play the 16 characters, and the director has made some cleverly insightful alterations both to the text and dramatis personae. Sticking to a 50/50 gender balance, we have the Duke’s bastard (a word omitted here) brother as a sister, played by the excellent Georgia Frost. No problem in that, but why do other soldiers call her “master”?
Ursula, usually Hero’s attendant, here becomes her mother, and that makes much more sense of the confusion of father Leonato, in a finely-judged performance by Bristol regular Chris Bianchi.
Dorothea Myer-Bennett returns to the Tobacco Factory as Beatrice, joining another former BOVTS student, Geoffrey Lumb, as her old sparring partner Benedick. Their love-hate relationship, one of the best known in all Shakespeare, has a real chemistry and is as edgily convincing as it is delightful.
Alex Wilson creates an extraordinary contrast between the louche Borachio and the ardent friar, with Imran Momen heartbreakingly capturing the arrogant and selfish Claudio’s moment of truth.
The majority of this production brings real insight to the story, performed with skill and subtlety. But then there are a couple of scenes when the directorial decisions are incomprehensible. Clever though it might have looked in rehearsal for the whole company to transform into super-heroes for a dance, it is jarring and awkward. And the comedy relief in Much Ado, the arrival of The Watch (nicely done by Louise Mai Newberry and her crew) would have been so much funnier without the frankly ridiculous costumes and the striving for laughs that didn’t come.
Overall there is much to cherish in this production, but you might want to close your eyes and ears every now and then.
Footnote: for stf and Bristol Old Vic. Both theatres followed their announcement of the October/November shows with posters which have now become the front pages of the play programmes – and both seem to set themselves against the productions they are advertising. The image for Much Ado is of an unidentified woman in fatigues, set against a red-washed background of violent partying and riot police under some urban overpass.
The Cyrano image is of the famous Gascon warrior and lover (but not of Tristan Sturrock, who has been hailed as the show’s star since the first announcement) looking knowingly over the rose that hides his most famous feature, with white drawing lines around him.