Maria Aberg’s As You Like It, performed in Stratford for the Royal Shakespeare Company last summer, was as beautiful and joyous as a Shakespearean production (or any theatre) can be. Her current production of Much Ado About Nothing for the Royal Exchange Manchester almost scales the same heights – indeed it does in most aspects but for minor reservations.
This is the second Much Ado in recent months set in the second world war. It captures a time of common purpose but also uncertainty, exhilaration and scarcity of means. Away from the battlefields, the men are weary and out of place, the women are in charge in a way previously unthinkable. With the character of Leonato changing sex – and played beautifully by Marty Cruickshank – there is a clear vision of women taking control and changing the world. In that sense, the lies targeted at Hero aren’t a random conspiracy but an ugly throwback threatening a better future.
The spectre of war is subtly present, no more so than when Benedick reasons “When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married”. Or in the character of Don John who is a grieving man so depressed that he desires for the whole world to be in the misery that he is.
While the production has fluidity and unity of purpose, certain set pieces still stand out: the huge heads worn by everyone in the masquerade ball is a brilliant idea, turning the scene into a visual feast, funny, exhilarating and disorienting. The rendition of Beyonce’s Crazy For Love in the same scene is the best musical reference in a Shakespearean production since Propeller did Single Ladies in A Winter’s Tale. (You can tell Beyonce is a great hit with a Shakespeare crowd). The scene where Benedick overhears about Beatrice’s love is perfect in execution and simplicity, the hilarity of the situation exploding by Benedick making the audience complicit in his actions as well as his thoughts. The last scene has an openess – quite literally, the set is stripped – and generosity of spirit that brings tears to the eyes.
Paul Ready plays Benedick as a confident habitual wit, his tongue running away with jests and quips, but his soul discombobulated by Beatrice’s presence (or something deeper and harder and more painful). He takes pleasure in the word play but he is a man in transition, open and searching for meaning. It’s his readiness to embrace love that makes him such joy to watch, his conspiratorial relationship with the audience based on a common desire for connection. Ellie Piercy’s Beatrice is a woman who knows her mind and soul, she knows what she has achieved and sacrificed. She resists Benedick until she knows he subscribes to the same vision, and their coming together – as sharp and as vivid as their sparring – has the hope of a better world in its heart.
Gerard Kearns’ Claudio has the impetuousness of youth undercut with heartfelt commitment and soulful sincerity, a combination impossible to resist. He visits Hero’s grave and weeps over his betrayal, in a scene that, although not in the text, increasingly appears in modern productions. (Modern audiences, it seems, need a show of remorse in order to forgive). Becci Gemmell as Hero was more timid than I would have liked, but she made a convincing case for the character’s appeal. I had a few problems with the Dogberry subplot, a part of the play always difficult to navigate. The production tried too hard in those scenes, with the gags coming thick and fast but with little elegance.
This is a small complain for a production that opens the play to joy and hope without ignoring the darkness lying in the heart of damaged men. Love triumphs not as the path to humdrum domesticity but as the glimpse of a better world.