Review: Much Ado About Nothing at Kilkenny Arts Festival (Shakespeare’s Globe on tour)

Review by Deirdre Gallagher

To discover that the thing one has been most set against is actually the very thing one most desires is a dizzying shift of perspective which would challenge the most even-tempered. Admitting the revelation publicly is a feat requiring more than pluck. In this exuberant enactment of Shakespeare’s comedy of warring lovers, performed by the Shakespeare’s Globe on tour troupe using a booth stage in the outdoor space of Kilkenny’s Castle Yard, Simon Bubb’s Benedick and Emma Pallant’s Beatrice rise to the challenge and save face by means of their indomitable energy, wit and moral stature, as portrayed in this superb production.

For all the bantering humour and pleasing symmetries of the early scenes, and in spite of the happy outcome for all (except Don John), this is not, in fact, much ado about nothing. The marriages in Messina are a small, specific sample of something far more serious than the glib title asserts, and the Globe on tour production reflects this. The cheery tricks played on Benedick and Beatrice in the early scenes are presented with gusto as light-hearted counterfeits, revels created by friends purely for sport. The cast render them as so much innocent, harmless fun, and the audience willingly connives. The busy stage is full of movement and song, while hyperbolic gestures, grimaces, direct eye contact with the audience and high-pitched tones enhance the sense of rollicking good humour; all is merriment. Ours was a delighted audience, out to enjoy what seemed to be, above all, an entertainment. Yet there was more at play here, despite the smiling and joking.

The feigned conversations overheard by Beatrice and Benedick make ingenious use of props and the playing space itself. Benedick lolls comically behind a chair, moving it around the stage unseen by the tricksters as he listens, rapt, while they marvel at Beatrice’s fabricated declaration of love. He eventually upturns a cart of oranges in his shock, which spill out over the front of the stage: the calm certainty of the confirmed bachelor has been disturbed forever. ‘Is it possible?’ he repeats, but he has already swallowed the bait whole. For Beatrice’s parallel moment of false truth, she sits on the ground at the foot of the stage,  listening wide-eyed and open-mouthed, just steps from the front row; a line of washing separates her from the speakers, and as the clothes are hung water splashes about liberally, until finally the tub is emptied over her head and she is rendered briefly speechless. The gullibility of both characters is as striking as it is diverting, and yet the audience cannot but feel some unease.

After the interval, the mood deepens, becoming sober and restrained – and as daylight dims in the Castle Yard, the atmosphere darkens, the pretty wedding lights looking brave and delicate in the glooming. When Hero is grievously slandered, the language of lies and deceit suddenly resonates with a new foreboding. For while Beatrice can give as good as she gets (and more), Hero is helplessly abased: an object of scorn and shame, publicly humiliated and rejected. The language of lies is now laid bare as the insidious language of abused power, and a sense of injustice dominates. When Hero faints, the powerful men who believe the lies against her simply leave the stage, and the gravity and pathos of the scene puts the earlier clowning into uncomfortable perspective. Beatrice and Benedick’s compassion for Hero is portrayed convincingly, amplifying our sense of their moral strength. When Beatrice demands that Benedick kill Claudio in revenge there was a shout of laughter from the audience – a quick outburst which relieved the tension momentarily, reassuring viewers that this was, after all, a comedy.  But her next words hushed the audience at once; her passionate repeated wish, ‘O, that I were a man!’ made clear the power imbalance underpinning Hero’s ill-treatment.

The interplay between audience and cast throughout the production was a principal reason for its success. The ebullience of the audience was seized on and carried by the actors, who worked as if an organic whole, skilfully judging the mood and receptivity of the spectators, occasionally sidling up to those in the front row and even dancing briefly with one. Spontaneity, acute comic timing and a sense of impromptu interaction with the audience all made for a riveting theatrical experience. The actors, who are also accomplished musicians and singers, delivered their speeches, songs and music with seemingly equal ease, emitting jollity and merriment above all.

At the end of the play, Benedick, the married man, celebrates his new state wholeheartedly, even if he has had to go to ridiculous lengths to prove the rationale behind his volte-face – and this a man who is initially hurt when Beatrice refers to him as ‘the Prince’s jester’. He has proved his own assertion that ‘Man is a giddy creature’. Beatrice likewise embraces her transformation: ‘Farewell contempt and scorn, maiden pride adieu’. One may as well make the best of things, despite what went before. Ultimately, the subjective nature of human experience and human adaptability are amply expressed in this good-humoured, spirited, and beautifully choreographed production. The unsettling issues of  power and powerlessness, and the value of lies and deceit for good or ill do not evaporate completely but rather fade from view as the drama reaches its joyful resolution: ‘Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more, Men were deceivers ever.’

— Deirdre Gallagher

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