The Shakespeare 400 commemorations have inspired some special productions throughout 2016 so far – but not many are quite so intriguing as Faction Theatre’s version of Much Ado About Nothing, running at the ReFASHIONed Theatre. For this is no ordinary theatre: it is based inside the iconic Selfridges building on Oxford Street.
A 21st century take on a 16th century classic, the production plays up the idea of gossip & rumour, incorporating 24-hour news channels & social media to bring a modern twist to proceedings.
If you’re unfamiliar with the story, it is set in Messina and the main focus is on the bringing together of Beatrice & Benedick. Their encounters always involve verbal sparring, which their friends & relatives grow tired of, resorting to desperate measures to keep the peace. Beatrice’s cousin, Hero, gets engaged to Benedick’s friend Claudio – though their happiness is jeopardised by the plotting of jealous Don John. He is the brother of Don Pedro (Prince of Aragon) and, despite being reconciled with his brother, still holds a grudge, so seeks revenge. It is a comedy, in spite of some of the bleak-sounding subplots – so it is, of course, resolved happily.
Whilst it does take a little while to get going, once the heavily comedic scenes come around the production really takes off. Its premise of the modern methods of spreading stories works well, seamlessly including a digital cameo from Meera Syal as a news reporter. And, given that it runs for around 100 minutes straight through, it does a good job of keeping the key story threads in & not overwhelming the audience with too much information. Interestingly, Leonato has become Leonata (Hero’s mother, rather than father). This helps with the cast’s gender balance, as well as introducing a different dynamic.
The purpose-built performance area is set up in the traverse, with a stage in the middle that’s reminiscent of a catwalk. Two fairly large screens are suspended for each side of the audience to see, as well as there being a bigger screen at one end of the stage. The minimalist design allows for the story to do the talking, relying on a talented cast.
In terms of the supporting cast, recent RADA graduate Lowri Izzard (seen in The Beggar’s Opera) stands out as a sweet & innocent Hero, opposite Harry Lister Smith as her love Claudio. There are also digital cameos from Simon Callow & Rufus Hound, appearing as Leonata’s neighbours on her residence’s video phone – this is another clever way of updating the play, with Callow & Hound making an unlikely, but very entertaining, double act.
Alison O’Donnell is funny & fiery as Beatrice, excelling in the delivery of her sharp comments aimed at Benedick. As O’Donnell is Scottish, I think it adds a little something extra – there is a generalisation or stereotype of Scottish women being a bit feisty, and that completely works to her advantage in this production.
If you could dream up a perfect Benedick, Daniel Boyd would be it. The ideal blend of joker & charmer, Boyd shows real vigour in his portrayal of the central role. The scene in which Benedick overhears his friends’ planned conversation is easily the highlight of the entire production, as Boyd uses his physicality & natural funny bones to give a fine example of a comic performance – whether dragging himself across the floor, or hiding behind a newspaper. And this all culminates in the spot-on utterance of his famous line, “I will be horribly in love with her.” This is definitely ones of my favourite performances of an iconic Shakespearean role.
My verdict? A sharp, slick modern interpretation of a Shakespeare favourite – theatrical storytelling at its best, guaranteed for you to fall horribly in love with.
Much Ado About Nothing runs at the ReFASHIONed Theatre in Selfridges until 24 September 2016. Tickets are available online and from the box office (lower ground floor).