It’s summer 1945, and war is over in Europe; British soldiers are making their way home through a newly liberated France following a long and testing fight. This triumphant & seasonal setting is the location of Antic Disposition’s latest production of the much loved comedy Much Ado About Nothing, with Don Pedro and his troops stopping off in the village of Messina – a place familiar to them from wartime. Here they encounter Leonato and his family, where in no time Claudio finds himself engaged to Leonato’s daughter Hero, and fellow officer Benedick’s “merry war” with Hero’s cousin Béatrice picks up where it left off. However, Don Pedro sets a matchmaking plan into motion that may unite the bickering pair.
Don Pedro’s bastard brother, Don John, does his best to sour relations (with the aid of soldier Borachio) by tricking Claudio into thinking Hero was unfaithful; he jilts her in front of the entire congregation, whereupon she collapses and Claudio leaves, little knowing the effect his actions may have had…
Antic Disposition have also taken inspiration from the famed French director of the time, Jacques Tati, by bringing plenty of physical comedy to the piece. Tati’s characters share a lot of characteristics with Dogberry (the Constable of the Watch), particularly in their officiousness and lack of self-awareness, so it’s little surprise that he has become slightly more central to the storytelling in this version. Whereas most productions won’t introduce him until later on, here it appears Dogberry’s day job is running a café (employing his deputy, Verges) and this is where much of the action takes place – and by seeing all the characters early on it definitely gives it a more authentic feel of rustic village life. Everyone will know everyone, and so we should too.
He is brought to life hilariously by Louis Bernard, who shows a natural flair for the role – with his fits of pique and frequent slapping of Verges, you can’t help but think of him as a bit of a cross between René Artois (‘Allo ‘Allo!) and Basil Fawlty. Bernard’s performance is impeccable, aided and abetted bravely by Scott Brooks as a near silent Verges. The pair make a wonderful comedy double act!
For me, the other standout performance comes from Nicholas Osmond as Benedick. His early encounters with Béatrice (Chiraz Aïch) simmers, though he largely manages to keep his cool – but it is when he is left to his own devices that he starts to boil over. As well as this, Osmond readily embraces the physical comedy aspects of the show, with an original take on the eavesdropping scene that sees him contorted, squashed and whacked in the face. His contribution as Pierre (part of the Watch) is also very funny indeed.
As much as I would have loved to have seen this performed in France (it was in Périgord and Quercy earlier this month), the beautiful and historic Gray’s Inn Hall also lends itself to this production, with its wooden interior draped in tricolore bunting and furnished with additional café tables for some members of the audience. It’s a treat for the eyes and ears, as Jon Risebero’s designs and Nick Barstow’s compositions combine to make a glorious Shakespearean spectacle.
My verdict? A visual treat that’s chock full of wit and impeccable physical comedy, not to mention the beautiful musical interludes – a glorious Shakespearean spectacle.
Much Ado About Nothing runs at Gray’s Inn Hall until 1 September 2018. Tickets are available online or on the door.