Like London buses, no sooner does one production of Much Ado About Nothing come along than another follows hot on its heels! This time it’s the turn of Merely Theatre, who are touring this beloved comedy alongside famous tragedy Macbeth – though beginning with a series of open air performances solely of Much Ado. Sadly the Great British weather took matters into its own hands during parts of the run at St Alfege Park, but luckily a plan B was in place and everything was moved over to the studio space in Greenwich Theatre instead. It was a shame to miss out on the full sunny spectacle, but it was a real treat to experience an intimate performance instead.
For this tour, Merely Theatre have moved away from their ‘twin system’ which would see different line-ups of five from a company of ten (such as last year’s tour of Romeo & Juliet and Twelfth Night), opting for a fixed cast of six but keeping to their commitment to gender equality in casting. A condensed cast also means a slightly condensed retelling of the story, but its essence is the same. Beatrice and Benedick are still at each other’s throats, whilst Claudio has fallen in love with Leonato’s daughter Hero – and, despite suggesting relations are now cordial, Don John still harbours a grudge against his brother Don Pedro, plotting with Borachio to exact his revenge. He chooses to use the suggestible Claudio as his instrument, ‘proving’ Hero’s infidelity – but he doesn’t reckon on the intervention of the Prince’s Watch…
This production is another comic triumph for Merely Theatre. Intent on ensuring the audience feels included, the cast acknowledge our presence by addressing their speech in our direction, or even incorporating individuals in small ways by making them part of the Prince’s Watch. Under Abigail Anderson’s direction, everyone is there in Messina for a couple of hours – this welcoming approach begins as soon as you arrive, with Dogberry & Verges making sure you’re securely in your seats, immediately relaxing you into the performance. The community feel this engenders definitely makes for a more entertaining night all round.
What’s also highly enjoyable are the musical interludes, performed amongst the cast. Never before would I have thought of using Arctic Monkeys’ I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor to accompany the masked ball scene, but it absolutely works – inducing knowing grins in the audience and also giving a cheeky nod to more Shakespeare with the line, “Oh there ain’t no love no, Montagues or Capulets”. And ending the show in true Shakespearean fashion with their own jig (Beatrice far from impressed at the obvious song choices) lifts the spirits even further, just to round things off nicely.
None of this would work without a set of spirited performances, and the energy & commitment shown by this group of six (not to mention some incredibly speedy costume changes) is outstanding. Jennifer Shakesby ensures that we will always remember that Dogberry is an ass, Andrew Hislop is an authoritative, but kindly, Leonato, and Emmy Rose doubles well as polar opposites Hero & Don John – innocent but no pushover as the former, cruel & single-minded as the latter. Simon Grujich plays up Claudio’s insecurities well, showing his naïvety in romantic entanglements as he’s played by Don John – as well as playing an enthusiastic Verges, eager to prove himself to Dogberry.
Rounding off the company are Artistic Director Scott Ellis as Benedick (& occasionally Margaret) and Alice Osmanski as Beatrice & Borachio. Osmanski has definitely got to grips with Beatrice’s temperament, quick-witted and clearly revelling in her exchanges with Benedick, though far from immune to the matchmakers’ ploy. Ellis’ Benedick gives as good as he gets, seemingly unperturbed by having his character dismantled by his friends, but quick to ‘do the right thing’ and requite Beatrice’s supposed love for him. Both have excellent comic timing and are entertaining at hiding, to top it all off!
My verdict? A comic triumph that welcomes everyone to Messina, with some fun musical choices amongst the Shakespeare – the performances from the cast of six are vibrant & full of energy.
Much Ado About Nothing ran at St Alfege Park & Greenwich Theatre Studio from 20-26 August 2018. Full details of the tour (and Macbeth) can be found on the official website.