Much Ado About Nothing. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Cate Clelland. Canberra Repertory Society. Theatre 3. Until October 3. Bookings: canberrarep.org.au.
For more than 400 years, Much Ado About Nothing has remained one of William Shakespeare's best-loved comedies. Canberra Rep's current production under the direction of Cate Clelland has set the action of the play in an imaginary province in 1920s Australia during the jazz age, shortly after the First World War. It is an intelligent choice, combining the playfulness and gay abandonment of the flapper era with the darker shadows of a devastating conflict. Love and deception underpin the lovers' folly and sinister subterfuge. Benedick, in a more than usually phlegmatic interpretation by Jim Adamik, denies love. Beatrice, played with feisty independence and intelligence by Lanie Hart, scorns capricious love. Claudio (Vivek Sharma) succumbs to romantic love for Hero (Mami Mount). The scene is laid for Shakespeare to spin the antithesis and irony of his comedy. Love shall prevail and deceit will be exposed, and all will be well that ends well.
Written in about 1598, Much Ado About Nothing employs many familiar dramatic devices of Shakespeare's earlier plays. The repartee of quicksilver wit between Benedick and Beatrice echoes the banter between Petruchio and Kate in The Taming of the Shrew. Hero's "death", contrived by Reverend Francis (Euan Bowen) echoes Juliet's feigned death. The trickery by Don Pedro (Ben Russell) and Claudio upon Benedick, and by Ursula (Alessa Kron) and Margaret (Bojana Kos) upon Beatrice to bring the sparring couple together emerges the following year in the mischief done to gullible Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Don John (David Kavanagh) brazenly announces himself as a villain, as does Richard lll. Much Ado About Nothing may be a formulaic comedy, but it has stood the test of time and its enduring popularity is affirmed in Canberra Rep's production.
Clelland's colourful outdoor setting lends this comedy of love's fickleness a sunny disposition, and there is much to commend in Rep's production. On opening night, much of the play's bewitching battle of wits lacked the sparkle to ignite the sparring between Benedick and Beatrice. The cruel impact of Don John's devious malice and his sycophantic sidekick Borachio (Joshua Bell) aroused too muted a passion in the grief at Hero's wronged virtue. Shakespeare's "two hours' traffic upon the stage" stretched to more and the well-articulated prose lacked the verve of emotion carried "trippingly on the tongue". Pace and energy were too often the absent drivers of passion.
There were occasions when Clelland's direction captured the essence of fun and foolishness in Shakespeare's frolic with absurdity. Choreographer Jamie Winbank's Charleston routines filled the stage with gaiety and fun. Fraser Findlay's Sigh No More, Ladies is sung with a playful air of folly. Adamik demonstrates his brilliant clowning skills during Benedick's eavesdropping scene and Riley Bell's Dogberry captures the robust and loud tomfoolery, clumsy malapropisms and physical comedy of the country bumpkin constable.
Rep's Much Ado About Nothing is a witty, fresh and unpretentious expose of Cupid's cunning and foolish human machination. When pace and passion eventually ignite audiences should be assured of a fun-filled romp of comic business, silly, giddy deeds and wicked intrigue at the theatre.