This touring co-production of Much Ado About Nothing created by Mappa Mundi and Theatr Mwldan, both from Wales, has updated, with great success, one of Shakespeare’s best loved comedies. The play is set between the world wars, intending to show the position of women in a society traditionally ruled by men. In a pared-down production with only nine actors and many peripheral characters trimmed from the performance, the play still managed to remain faithful to Shakespeare’s text and packed in plenty of laughs.
The action follows a troop of soldiers, home from war, at the house of Leonato in Messina. The play revolves around two couples – Claudio and Leonato’s daughter, Hero, and her cousin, Beatrice, and Benedick. While Claudio and Hero fall in love at first sight and are eager to marry, Beatrice and Benedick are less immediately forthcoming with their feelings. They persist in their evasion and exchange numerous playful, witty remarks until their friends devise a ruse to make them fall in love and admit their feelings to each other. Simultaneously a more sinister plot is hatched by Don Pedro’s scheming brother, Don John. Jealous of the others’ happiness, he plans to prevent the marital bliss of Claudio and Hero by destroying Hero’s reputation.
The play zipped along and the brilliant Lynne Seymour and Liam Tobin as Beatrice and Benedick respectively stole every scene they were in. Seymour portrayed a spirited, sharp-minded Beatrice, dressed in a mannish shirt and trousers which outwardly conveyed her strength and independence. Meanwhile Tobin played a witty, charming Benedick, a perfect foil to Beatrice. The “gulling” scenes in particular were a delight as Benedick and Beatrice tried – and failed – to eavesdrop on their friends without being seen. Though both “Signor Mountanto” and “Lady Disdain” swore against the possibility of love or marriage, they showed an endearing tenderness after the realisation of their love for each other.
Their counterparts were a shy and sweet Hero (Gwawr Loader) and Claudio (Robin Waters), a bashful, innocent youth, easily persuaded and quick to sulk when he believes Don Pedro has won Hero’s heart.
The lovers were matched by the rest of the cast, including Matthew Bulgo as the kindly Don Pedro, who in one of the performance’s loveliest moments was forced to beat an awkward retreat after Beatrice laughed away his hint at a marriage proposal. A warm-hearted Leonato (John Cording) was left shaking with rage and sorrow when his daughter’s “betrayal” was revealed, humiliatingly, at the wedding itself. Nicola Reynolds was also commendable as cheery waiting-woman, Margaret.
Another outstanding performance was put in by Rhys Downing as the scornful Don John, a sneering villain who smirked with barely suppressed glee when he managed to convince Claudio of Hero’s infidelity.
Despite Don John’s ability to wreak havoc, similar to Iago (the terrifyingly powerful villain of Shakespeare’s Othello), the scheme was foiled by the hilarious, bumbling Constable (Nicola Reynolds) and Verges (Gwawr Loader), who neatly doubled up for these roles. They were transformed into a cockney, female night-watch duo who eagerly trapped Don John’s disdainful accomplice Borachio (Gareth Pierce) with their knitting.
The staging was also simple yet effective in accommodating the performance. An idyllic terrace garden was created on stage before it was later transformed into a misty night scene through the use of smoke and subtle blue lighting. Simultaneously, the post-WW2 setting was maintained by faded union jack flags hanging over the set and a selection of wartime songs being played in the background.
While darkness was present in the play, tragedy was thankfully averted and the story was brought to a joyous, comic conclusion. In its concise form and with its superb casting, the performance managed to retain the essences of love, laughter and deception found in Shakespeare’s play, and provided an easy way into his work for any student.