Artistic director Tamara Harvey and set designer Janet Bird’s experience at The Globe was in evidence with the traverse staging of this production of Much Ado About Nothing. This is the first time a play has been staged like this in Theatr Clwyd, and to great effect. Some audience members were sat at tables and chairs on the stage, and while this did mean I had someone rather tall and broad in front of me, the added space allowed for such energetic movement around the stage that I never missed anything. Bringing the audience to the stage certainly added to the comedy by incorporating some audience members into some physical scenes, and allowing characters to direct the odd playful jibe at them. It also allowed actors to use the audience entrances to add an extra dimension to the drama.
The set was very attractive with spherical white lanterns of different sizes hanging above the audience on both sides of the stage, a lawn with artistic topiary and stylish outside tables and chairs with a beautiful grass and slab chequer board centrepiece.
The play is set in the 60s with bright costumes from the period and music and dance used to dazzling effect. Balthasar’s famous song ‘Sigh no more ladies, sigh no more, Men were deceivers ever’ becomes a collaborative effort making the most of the singing talents of Catherine Morris, who plays Hero’s lady in waiting Margaret. This and an earlier song – using lines from the bard’s sonnets as lyrics and given a flower power twist – really show off the comedic talents of Sion Pritchard, Morris and Nakay Kpaka. The latter plays Claudio who by dramatic necessity is a serious character, so the singing and dancing interludes were a good opportunity for the actor, a relative newcomer, to show his lighter side.
Compliments are due not only to composer Richard Hammarton for the music but choreographer Joe Walkling for the excellent exuberant interludes of dancing which have to be seen to be appreciated.
Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakepeare’s most popular comedies, in no small part due to the charming, witty and reluctant couple Benedick and Beatrice and their captivating badinage. The actors playing the pair, John Ramm and Lisa Palfrey, gave great performances. Ramm brought a modern dryness to the lines and Palfrey a sparkling quirkiness and both performances were hilariously physical. The scenes where Benedick and Beatrice hide while ‘overhearing’ other characters plant information designed to bring them together, were very entertaining and capitalised on the new staging. Ramm hurled a topiary ball about the stage in a nod to The Prisoner echoed in the set’s spherical lanterns, and Palfrey hid for a time at my feet, clutching the shoulders of the afore-mentioned tall and broad audience member.
As a Welsh speaker I welcome actors speaking in their natural voice, be it Welsh, Northern Irish or RP. However when playing Sister Frances, Kerry Peers, who is local and has a Flintshire accent, put on a strong Welsh accent which seemed to lead her to place strange emphasis on Shakespeare’s lines which personally I found distracting.
The cast give solid performances but I particularly enjoyed Sion Pritchard’s comic turn as the officious and unintentionally comical Dogberry, a hilarious precursor of Mrs Malaprop.
Harvey brings some modern gender and age balance through her casting with patriarch Leonato becoming matriarch Leonata, played by Sian Howard, and the actor who plays Ursula, Kerry Peers, also playing Verges and Sister Frances (originally Friar Frances). And though Shakepeare probably envisaged his middle-aged couple Beatrice and Benedick as being in their late-twenties, ours are what we consider middle-aged, if a little older.
Despite all these advances, the original script is of course a product of its time and I always find it rankles how swiftly and easily Claudio gets his girl despite his callow lack of faith. This is of course offset by the charming and equal courtship and eventual partnership between Benedick and Beatrice. The bitter taste in the mouth at the horrible double standards for men and women is quickly dissipated by a wonderfully happy and infectious dance to conclude proceedings.
All in all a very stylish and interesting production of a Shakespeare comedy staple.