There are so many ways Much Ado About Nothing could be the perfect play for right now. It wraps its squirmy sexual politics in a comic shell, making it more palatable than something like Measure for Measure, and thus—maybe—easier to encounter its condemnation of toxic masculinity head on.
Or potential condemnation, anyway.
Simon Dormandy, director of this production at the Rose Kingston, seems aware of this potential, and this tension between having a good time and having something rather uncomfortable to say. But he only manages to achieve balance between these tones in flashes, though some of them are brilliant.
Dormandy is breezily willing to change Shakespeare’s language as needed, to good effect. No calling something an ‘arras’ when it’s actually a bar, or references to swords whilst obviously holding a gun. He grants wonderful clarity to plot points that often come across as muddled, and the verse delivery across the board makes the lines crisply comprehensible. However, with the exception of John Hopkins as Benedick, most characters draw their laughs off the lines, through admittedly clever physical comedy bits.
One major strength is the setting. A goofy pseudo-commercial for the luxurious Messina wellness spa serves as prologue, only to be interrupted by a blaring siren, and the real meat of this concept. We’re taking ‘Don’ literally: Don Pedro is a Sicilian mafia boss, a choice which proves fantastically effective. It restores the undercurrent of violence of a pack of soldiers suddenly invading this idyllic setting, and re-establishes a world where duty and honour might plausibly make people kill one another. The other characters’ smiling fear of Don Pedro likewise helps us understand why everyone happily goes along with some of his more cock-eyed schemes. Who would dare do otherwise?
No gentleman soldiers here, however, which makes the already-thankless role of Claudio, firmly Don Pedro’s protégé in the business, even more difficult. Calam Lynch is Claudio by way of Hotspur, prone to sudden bursts of posturing bravado or startling violence, but without the humour for balance. There are gestures at a sincere connection between him and Hero—he enters wearing a pink Palermo top, and Hero is later revealed to have a matching football poster on her wall—but this connection is never really manifested in the scenes themselves, thanks to Lynch’s stoicism, which sometimes reads like tepidness, and Hero’s (Kate Lamb) stiff timidity, which reads until the very last moments of the play like she’s being forced into the marriage. Again, with such an overbearing and dangerous Don Pedro, who could refuse? But it becomes clear that that’s not Dormandy’s intent. And this typifies the confusion at the heart of the production.
Dormandy very intentionally and very effectively creates a world in which it’s easy to believe that Hero is being coerced. In one fantastic moment, she is forced to the middle of a testosterone-fuelled group dance. She smiles obligingly, obviously uncomfortable and embarrassed, as the men all leer and grope at her under the guise of this traditional dance. In the same scene, Dormandy isolates a series of conversations that are usually shouted out from the midst of the dance, a separation that makes it very plain that every single one of them is a vignette of a man pursuing a disinterested woman against her will.
But Dormandy doesn’t manage to sustain these critiques, and an absolutely wonderful gesture in the final scene—a dark, women-led tarantella that centres Claudio the way the men’s dance previously centred Hero—doesn’t quite come off. It seems meant to mean that the tables have turned, but nothing in anyone’s behaviour, especially Claudio’s, suggests that they meaningfully have.
Most of the cast seems uncomfortable with bridging the divide between comedy and tragedy that this last scene most obviously encapsulates. The two major exceptions are Hopkins’s tremendous Benedick and Nicholas Prasad as Borachio, whose insertion into a series of mostly-silent interstitial scenes that render him an oddly—but pleasantly, because he’s great—prominent figure.
At risk of overselling it, Hopkins is basically the Platonic ideal of a Benedick. A rich, pleasant voice, that mix of swagger and clownishness thinly veiling a sweet and squishy centre, a complete willingness to look like an idiot, and the most adept use of Shakespeare’s language in the whole cast. He seamlessly traverses Benedick’s shift from comic confirmed bachelor to one of the only men in the play who is willing to openly stand up for what he thinks is right.
The one thing he lacks, unfortunately, is much of a spark with Mel Giedroyc’s Beatrice. When they’re really trying, they conjure some energy, but their sparring comes off as two class clowns showing off, not as a mask for any deeper attraction or even affection.
For Giedroyc’s clownish Beatrice, jokes are just another means of fulfilling her family function of keeping things running smoothly: check the menus, give orders to the staff, toss off some quips to entertain the guests. Beatrice’s one real love scene with Benedick is her best, when snarky faces and mock-anger are finally set aside in favour of something more grounded, but Dormandy just won’t let her settle in it, instead pushing her too quickly back into exaggerated humour.
It drives home the extent to which Beatrice is in fact one of the essential sources of the play’s critiques, something I have never noticed quite so clearly. She is one of its most uncompromising ethical voices. When her jokes are mere buffoonery, not consistently underpinned with real heart, it leaves a massive hole in the play’s commentary about gender. There are so many ways to conceive of what lies at Beatrice’s core, but whether her humour is borne of frustration, self-deprecation, a sincerely clownish spirit that simply cannot be contained by the propriety expected of her gender, or whatever else, it is a commentary on the gendered systems that make this bright, charming, and loving woman’s family and friends see her as simultaneously unfit for marriage and desperately in need of a partner.
But this production seems more interested in letting Beatrice be funny and easy to swallow than unruly or truly disruptive. So, too, with the production as a whole: there is no question that Dormandy sees the darkness at the heart of this play, but the appeal of the comedy proves too strong to resist. In the end it’s an uneasy mix, mostly very pleasant, but one that seems a waste of how timely and sharp this play and Dormandy’s clever ideas for it have the potential to be.
‘Much Ado About Nothing’ is on at Rose Theatre Kingston until 6th May. Book tickets here.