A railroad carriage wedges itself across the Globe stage for Matthew Dunster’s take on the ‘merry war’ that is Much Ado About Nothing, set during the Mexican Revolution. Anne Fleischle’s excellent design serves the play itself well. It makes light, believable work of scenes where Beatrice and Benedick are tricked, allowing for a dynamic use of space which eschews the pantomime-level hijinx the play often encourages. Use of the carriage roof and pit let the action reach out and embrace the audience in a way that – regardless of recent controversy – punters love, and only the Globe can deliver. A projected billowing sky suggests the open plains of Mexico, yet, somehow, the Globe remains a stubbornly immutable space.
As the night rolls on, it becomes clear the trouble is intrinsic to the production. The women’s colourful skirts are choreographed to stunning effect and gun-slinging men (and women) shoot at cans, but none of this seems the infect the drama itself. The bolted-on feeling is even more frustrating because, at its core, Dunster’s Much Ado is clear-sighted and clever. The modernised text rings true and clear, while our verbally jousting duo are freed from sneering self-regard by warm, human performances from Matthew Needham and Beatriz Romilly.
Needman gives blustering Benedick an air of vulnerability which overpowers some of his early misogyny and makes his transformation to lover a smooth one. He’s almost adorable – a kind of doe-eyed mummy’s boy in search of emasculation. Romilly’s Beatrice’s early defence of spinsterhood feels genuine, too. When she says she has no use for a man, it doesn’t feel like the words of someone deflecting criticism of her failure to nail a fella down. Dunster has steered their piercing barbs away from hysterics and let the words fall as they may. At times, it feels oddly passionless, but this emphasises that these are two people of similar temperaments settling for warm companionship that will let them to be themselves in the long-term.
What neither of them feel like are Mexican Revolutionaries. Sticking a skinny white boy under a sunbed (presumably, maybe he used fake tan, who knows…) and adorning him with a stick-on moustache is asking for eyebrows to be raised. What’s worse is that Needham’s performance is so emotionally intelligent and naturalistic it feels like the production undermines him. And that’s before any of the other Mexican stereotypes pile on. Sombrero-wearing, cigar-chewing, Don Pedro is wince-inducing, while Dog Berry transformed into a culturally-insensitive dunderheaded American silent film director strips the fool of all his fun; a times he feels like a heightened parody of the play’s problems. His continued appearance elicited audible groans.
Cultural appropriation is a big stick to beat a production of this quality with, but it’s a thought that forces its way to the surface time and time again. Dunster’s stated intent in using the Mexican Revolution was that women fought alongside men, therefore redressing the play’s power imbalance. But, unless you’re au fait with this fact or have studied the programme beforehand, the early appearance of a female child soldier and the gender-reversal of Don John doesn’t provide enough context. The latter’s bitterness-filled justification of their actions is stingingly effective from the mouth of a woman, but elsewhere there is little that sets right the play’s ill-treatment of its women. Claudio’s violent rejection of Hero and her father’s careless reaction feels as depressing as ever.
And it’s not the only identity politics that prickle. Secondary characters, primarily those in service to the aristocratic family, sport shonky English regional accents – faux-East End to Brummie – while our heroes are drama-school Estuary. Apart from Leonato, who seems to be Northern. No doubt a point it being made here, but it’s mangled. A dazzling maracas ’n’ all final set-piece brings the house down yet also reinforces discomforting impressions. The Mexican Revoltion doesn’t throw much light on Much Ado, while Shakespeare, for all the universality of his themes, doesn’t much illuminate the Mexican Revolution.
Much Ado About Nothing is on at Shakespeare’s Globe until 15 October 2017. Click here for more details.