New versions of Much Ado just keep on coming. Last year there was the excellent Joss Whedon version film, with Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof sparkling as Beatrice and Benedick; on stage there was also the rather less successful Mark Rylance production at the Old Vic, starring James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave as the warring lovers.
Maria Aberg’s take on the play is fresh and engaging, her production ostensibly set in a celebratory post-war Italy, though there are plenty of joyfully anachronistic references to Beyonce and Cagney & Lacey scattered throughout – this is after all the director who recreated the finale of Dirty Dancing in the middle of King John and transported Rosalind and Orlando to a music festival.
Aberg’s cast appear to be having a terrific amount of fun. Paul Ready is a brilliant Benedick, playing down the character’s traditional arrogance and instead employing a bumbling charm which sparks off nicely against Ellie Piercy’s cool, calm and collected exterior, as Beatrice.
It’s the scenes between Ready and Piercy that work best and make the most creative use of the intimate space of the Royal Exchange. The moment in which the couple are tricked into revealing their true feelings for each other is a hoot, both performers clambering over people in the front row and hiding in between the seats. Such is the chemistry between them that the production suffers slightly when Benedick and Beatrice aren’t on stage, the pace flagging in their absence.
There’s some strong support from Gerard Kearns, previously best known for his role in Shameless, who makes an admirable Shakespearean debut as Claudio, despite a slight tendency to over-emote when he’s mourning his Hero, and from Milo Twomey, as a dark and brooding Don Jon. Aberg’s decision to switch the gender of Leonato is an intriguing one which pays off; Marty Cruickshank’s disgust at discovering Hero’s supposed infidelity is somehow even more powerful when coming from a matriarchal figure.
The Dogberry scenes are funny enough but there are moments when they swing too close to slapstick. There’s more gender-blind casting here, with Sandy Foster playing Dogberry in an appealing Dad’s Army fashion, but while the sight of Dogberry and sidekick Verges dancing to the Cagney & Lacey theme is amusing, it seems to come from nowhere. The comedy feels a bit too broad given what has gone before: the shift in tone is rather jarring.
A visually spectacular dance sequence, in which the cast don over-sized heads to perform a swing dance version of Beyonce’s ‘Crazy In Love’ is both strangely unsettling and yet compelling despite its oddness. All these elements, while individually distinctive, result in rather unbalanced production when taken together. The laugh count may be high but the production is less successful at drawing out the play’s darkness. Even Beatrice’s command to Benedick to “kill Claudio” is played for laughs, and Claudio’s grief towards the end of the play seems over-stretched in comparison.
Aberg’s is a fun, exciting production in many ways, fresh and contemporary, but there are times when the comic elements, while well played, come close to eclipsing the love story that’s at Much Ado’s heart.