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FringeReview UK 2022

Much Ado About Nothing

National Theatre, London

Genre: Classical and Shakespeare, Comedy, Live Music, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: National Theatre, Lyttelton


Low Down

Directed by Simon Godwin, Set Designer Anna Fleischle, Costume Designer Evie Gurney, Lighting Designer Lucy Carter, Movement Director Coral Messam, Composer Michael Bruce, Sound Designer Christopher Shutt, Fight Director Kate Waters

Associate Set Designer Cat Fuller, Music Associate Lindsey Miller

Company Voice Work Jeannette Nelson, Staff Director Hannah Joss

Dramaturg Emily Burns,

Music Director / Guitars Dario Rossetti-Bonell, Kit Shane Forbes

Upright Bass Nicki Davenport, Woodwind Jessamy Holder, Trumpet Steve Pretty

Till September 10th


The second major Much Ado in two months. The Globe’s sophisticated version by Lucy Bailey, set in April 1945 still plays, and sets gender-reversal precedents, though isn’t the only isn’t the first production to use wartime Italy. In 1985 an ingenious production at the (then) Gardiner Centre Sussex University set Much Ado About Nothing in its original Messina, Sicily, in July 1943. The troops are American Italians, with links to locals and Mafia, just then released.

If the Globe’s a portent of summer though, The National’s directed by Simon Godwin is summer itself. Gone are threats of gendered oppression and a blaze of the Hotel Messina (we’re back in Sicily thankfully, not northern Italy) surely sets the seal on feelgood 2022. There’s an exuberance, but also an ease in this production that doesn’t try too hard for concept.

Naturally there’s losses of the dark than can erupt, hints remain with the main protagonists rather than villains in that crucial declaration of love. Set in a vague 1930s-50s, you quietly hope the Italian-flagging soldiers haven’t returned from the 1935 Ethiopia campaign. Still, this mustn’t be over-thought. Anna Fleischle’s curvy pink-bricked Deco hotel with revolve to dhow a pink interior, with flans that can dissolve against a panoramic blue and pop-up bath-houses and bathing tents, it’s Sicily-by-Riviera, save the shrewdly anchored Suffolk-pink of the façade. Lucy Carter suffuses all in sunshine and sudden drops to dark, and the cat play out front and centre, as well as balcony. There’s deliberately a lack of recess

Here, transplanted, the men rarely change to from buff uniforms, dropping into pastel casuals and suits. With Bocaccio-style masks and dancing, a sumptuary of dresses (Beatrice’s a turquoise-blue broken out of the 1930s, Hero’s innocent floral), costume supervisor Evie Gurney and her team anchor this production in timeless Deco. It helps there’s a live swing band, directed by Dario Rossetti-Bonell.

That makes sense. Unlike the Globe there’s no crucial slippage of power in reverse-gendered Antonia’s position. Wendy Kweh, now married to Leonato shows force and dignity, a quicker fury than her husband and scorn you couldn’t cut through with a blade.

Rufus Wright’s Leonato exudes a aristocratic bonhomie, dignified warmth, anger over Hero, venerable resolve. It’s an authoritative performance.

A shout out to Phoebe Horn’s buoyant Margaret in her debut role: she brings zing. sassy, linguistically virtuosic, sexy, mischievous, her superb delivery at one point rightly earns applause. Someone to watch. Celeste Dodwell’s Ursula gets more physical roles  and makes her mark with physical comedy.

Ashley Zhangazha’s gravelly, avuncular Don Pedro contrasts with David Judge’s ‘plain villain’ Don John, invested here with a lean and hungry one deliberation. He’s no Iago, but someone savouring malice and resentment, not quite inured to it. Judge stamps him with a vestigial humanity.

Certainly this is a world where women are honoured. And it’s men tattling as It’s a farcical pre-echo of men believing their own sex as Dr Alisa Grant Ferguson reminds us in a programme essay.

Katherine Parkinson’s Beatrice though stands apart. No quick wit here, no summer lightning either. She takes time to disdain: no spitfire tirades, but elegantly languid provocative throwing off her speaking poignards. She’s expressive but in an inwardness that lacks the dancing star she speaks of herself. We miss that element but there’s so much more to enjoy in her clarity, her gradual sidelong glances and growing re-attachment to Benedick.

She and John Heffernan are though the most amorous Beatrice and Benedick I can remember: when finally declaring they can’t keep their hands or lips off each other.

There’s reserves of wit struck off Heffernan’s Benedick, a role where he normally comes a good second. In this production his last words are taken by Beatrice but Heffernan steals comic fire in his bewilderment that Beatrice loves him. His pause before ‘There’s a double meaning in that’ is exquisite, longer than any I’ve heard.  The audience accustomed to laughter, laugh at this so much they also laugh when he’s deadly serious.

Heffernan’s more the classic Benedick than Parkinson is Beatrice. His suave delivery, his pauses and sheer insouciance marks this as a role he’s born to.

He scampers about trying to climb the same holds that Boracio manages with ease. When this fails Benedick’s eventually under an ice-cream trolley, with predictable, one might say delicious results. Crouching within inches of his apparently oblivious friends he ought to mind his fingers. Such farce is almost outdone by Parkinson’s Beatrice, equally sent slithering about and also dropping out of the hammock to eavesdrop on people who step over Beatrice as if she doesn’t exist. It’s  normally a set-piece, and here not as Faydeau-and-Cooney as the Globe’s still good slapstick, with ingenious props turned torture weapons.

The electrifying climax of Act IV/1 though is where this comedy overleaps greater ones with a mutually astonished admission of love, and Beatrice’s ‘Kill Claudio’ moment. There’s nothing outside Romeo and Juliet to compare with this tragic intensity, and the power of this production is the way Parkinson, weeping with fury at Hero’s slander is comforted by Heffernan, who broods on the same. It’s again unhurried, but here it tells: stripping Parkinson and Heffernan to bare feeling, a scene that can be overwhelming. Here Beatrice’s command is almost muffled during a clinch but clear enough; the audience laugh on the occasion – something’s not quite right. It’s certainly loving though, and though we lack the darkness the strength of feeling’s palpable, a sudden release of long-pent desire.

There’s more punch in the Globe production when Beatrice feels the full weight of impending tragedy. Here, Godwin’s decided to leave that alone Hero will be bereft, Benedick marked. War’s invaded, and it’ll end in tragedy.

Ionna Kimbook’s Hero and Eben Figueiredo’s Claudio are both as strong as their roles permit. Their union might be the plot’s mainspring but they’re also Gavin and Stacey; a stronger couple always steal the show. Nevertheless, Kimbook’s allowed more vivacity, spirit, time to grow into outrage and playfulness by turns. Visibly excited by Claudio from the first, this Hero shows warmth and quick wit, plotting to get Beatrice married and no shrunk-fit Violet.

Figueiredo’s role is here allowed redemption: partly by camping out all night in vigil over a black-lined grave – with Italianate photograph of Hero. He’s also less brattish, more thoughtful – enough to make his confirmation of Benedick’s challenge believable. However he’s been duped and however little he yet values women, he’s not the cipher he can be. Figueiredo plays him as a redeemed callow young man. You still feel he’s got off incredibly lightly.

Mateo Oxley’s singing Valentino as front of the band reminds one of the way Moth was used in the RSC’s Love’s Labour’s Lost 2014 production. He’s a delight, a light Gigli. His Friar Francis is equally strong, commanding in his clarity and master of counterplot: about as vivid as a quasi-Anglican priest can be in Italy.

Kiren Kebali-Dwyer’s Balthazar and Ashley Gillard’s Lorenzo sparkle in their small staff roles, and Marcia Lecky’s Volpe Puzo, but particularly Lady Justice is an island of seriousness lapped in a world of froth.

Brandon Grace’s Boracio is lively, almost winning in his nasty mission, and here we get the ocular proof of the normally offstage event: Boracio seducing an eager, long-aroused Margaret. Ewan Miller’s Conrade belies his ‘gentleman’ assertion and he slumps outside, waiting for him. Cue the piled-up Keystones cop moment of their overhearers, straight slapstick.

David Fynn’s Dogberry makes a beautifully modulated ass of himself. Indeed Fynn, Nick Harris’s avuncular but clear-headed Verges and Olivia Forest’s Georgina Seacole luxuriate in malapropisms. Except Forest’s  who’s not only given enormous physical comedy moments but sings beautifully. When she’s told she bears a noble name, we know what’s meant too. Al Coppola’s Hugh Oatcake’s nearly as hapless as his leader. Godwin’s constables – all in mint-green hotel flummery – strike off each clear twittery by turns so we savour it. 

This isn’t the most revelatory Much Ado, but the most consummate and complete for a while. And indeed Hero gets to recite Sonnet 29 as Claudio mourns her supposed death: ‘When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes’. It’s a beautiful touch, adding stature to Hero and this production, a. true moment of reflection in the dark before the dawn.