Much Ado About Nothing – The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
It is often an intimidating charge to sit and take on a piece by the most celebrated English playwright ever, and one that requires some degree of preparation. Perhaps the only thing more daunting that exposing one’s self to such cultural brilliance is undertaking the staging of such a cultural anchorage, because, let’s face it, anything by Shakespeare has evolved to become tantamount to English culture itself.
The only wriggling-room left for a director and a company is to present the words of the bard alongside a unique interpretation and offering, and despite its positioning in a Twentieth-Century postwar world and some exciting visuals, Aberg’s Much Ado About Nothing fell short of permitting an excitingly new rendering.
One of Shakespeare’s greatest comedies, Much Ado About Nothing weaves a story of trickery, masquerade and love. Its centres on two contrasting couples, Claudio and Hero and Benedick and Beatrice, and the conversing deceptions that pave the paths of their love.
Whilst Claudio and Hero are the primary couple in the production, it is very much the comedic efforts and witty asides of Benedick and Beatrice that dominate both the stage and the audience’s attention. Aberg’s offering not only adheres to this reality but very much exacerbates it, with Benedick and Beatrice outshining the rest of the ensemble, notably in their characters’ being deceived as to their love for each other (2:3 & 3:1). One is left oblivious to the conversation occurring between the three conspirators as Benedick climbs his way through the audience, placing himself on an available lap in order to observe the discussion of Beatrice’s love for him and stealing a jacket from one of its members to conceal himself.
The only real beneficiaries of the mid-century rework were Dogberry and Verges, the hilarity in the text exaggerated by the kooky-nature of the feminine former and the dim-witted simplicity of the latter. Yet unfortunately, when as a member of the audience you are urging the main story to move on so as to enjoy the fine acting of the secondary couple and the physical comedy of two minor characters it hinders the performance as a whole.
From the barren floorboard stage present as one takes their seat, the scenery evolves for all to see, easing one’s fears that no aesthetic aids are going to accompany the oft daunting words of the bard. The glittering bunting marvellously colours the stage as the chandelier pulls it from the heap and the bejewelled beach hidden under the boards provides an apt arena for the production to reach its agreeable conclusion. However, despite the colourful visuals, the production still falls somewhat flat in distinguishing itself from a basic reading to a contemporary piece.
We are all aware of the importance and cultural weight of Shakespeare’s work, however, a contemporary audience need more than the original genius, and a production needs to offer something more in order for an audience to remain invested in it, which Aberg’s Much Ado About Nothing fails to provide. Undeniably, there were some redeeming qualities which ultimately could have contributed to an exciting revival; Ready’s fine understanding and reading of Benedick, the constable’s exaggerated physicality and Piercy’s quick and sharp tongue mirroring a modern-self-reliant woman we all know today. Yet, such brilliance was only as noticeable as it was because of the tedium of the greater part of the performance.
The Royal Exchange Theatre’s Much Ado About Nothing was by no means a bad production, however it fell short of what one has come to expect of a modern Shakespeare offering outside of the Globe. And ‘fell-short’ is the only way that one can describe its disappointments, because they were very much shortcomings and not failures.
‘Much Ado About Nothing’ runs at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre through 3 May
Headline image: Jonathan Keenan