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Much Ado About Nothing ***

The Globe, 23 July 2017

There isn’t a ton of chemistry between the two leads in this Much Ado and it doesn’t make the serious political points it craves to make. But it’s also frothy and infectiously good fun.

The latest production in The Globe’s Summer of Love season (half a century since 1967, Woodstock, Sargeant Pepper and all that, you see) is Much Ado About Nothing, one of Shakespeare’s most loved comedies and justly so.

It’s directed by Matthew Dunster, who was responsible for the travesty that was the recent Imogen so it was possible to expect another horror story from this production. Happily, the worst fears are not realised, and for the most part this Much Ado is likeable enough.

Equally, it falls short of the mark. The connection between this Beatrice (Beatriz Romilly) and Benedick (Matthew Needham) lacks sparkle, and the interpretations of character and place imposed by Dunster don’t always convince. Of course, the bits that the audience appeared to like the most are also the ones that had the least to do with Shakespeare, but this seems to be pro forma for The Globe these days.

Thankfully all the high tech light and sound shows which have thus far characterised Emma Rice’s mercifully truncated period of office at The Globe are nowhere to be found. Instead, for the most part, Dunster seems happy to work within the unique limitations of this space rather than regard them as annoying inconveniences to be circumvented whenever possible.

The only music is live, though amplified, and the set consists of a turn of the century railway goods van, from which appear a series of cleverly used trapdoors and sliding screens. For the most part, all we have is the stage and actors, and that’s as it should be.

We’re back in the Mexican Revolution of 1915 for the setting, and the opening of the show, with its juddering railway car, sleepy looking Mexicans atop the car in ponchos and mariachi trumpets playing, is straight out of Sergio Leone. This setting also gives all these LAMDA and Guildhall trained actors the opportunity to sport massive sombreros, lavish moustaches and indulge in some rootin’, tootin six shooter gun play.

At the very outset, a wounded soldier is brought in on a stretcher but after that the context of the revolution is forgotten and there’s no further reference to it. Instead, it becomes a larky Western movie. It’s about as authentically Mexican as the scene when Leslie Nielsen and his bumbling cohorts are disguised as members of a mariachi band in Naked Gun 2 1/2 : The Smell of Fear.

All this doesn’t matter very much at all. It’s at its core a light-hearted play and it doesn’t really matter where it’s set and how authentic that setting is. But it seems Dunster thinks the context does matter. He says the reasons he went for this Mexican period setting included the fact that women fought alongside men but also because Trump was ‘making all his noise about building the wall’ and it thus felt important to understand Mexico.

The show also ends with what appears a revolutionary song, declaimed by the entire stern-faced cast. But Dunster is very wide of the mark if he thinks this production has landed any political blows. From that perspective anyway, it’s a swing and a miss.

The costumes are lovely, there is some traditional foot-stomping, skirt whirling dancing at the weddings, and the music is great. The idea to have characters occasionally arrive on horses, with actors on stilts and wire horsey heads a la Lion King, almost works a treat but it quickly becomes clear that the actors need a bit more coaching to simulate equine movement effectively.

Matthew Needham is a highly watchable actor, has a lovely comic sense and speaks the verse (what there is of it) clearly, but the relationship between a laboured Beatriz Romilly lacks the necessary fire and ice to make the production really sing. This is a couple that have known each other before the play begins, but there is little sense of a shared history and settled animosity.

Not for the first time, Martin Marquez, as Leonato, stands out in a Globe production for the simplicity and feeling of his verse speaking. Don John is cast across gender as Juana, and Jo Dockery relishes the opportunity to exude a still menace.

Dogberry is reconceived as an idiot American film-maker (Mr Dog Berry) in jodhpurs and cap turned round the wrong. Apparently Pancho Villa did sign a contract with the American Mutual Film Company which subsequently recorded his deeds during the revolution, so there is some historical basis for this – not that there needs be any of course.

But to make Dogberry a movie director and not a foolish policeman makes his subsequent unveiling of the plot to disgrace Hero a little harder to realise and also removes the opportunity to laugh at pompous officers of the law Shakespeare wants us to have. The part is also heavily cut, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Of course, it’s a pretty lazy portrayal of an ugly American, and there are several anti-American quips in the production, but it’s OK to be racist about Americans as we all know.

Anya Chalotra, in her professional debut as Hero, and Marcello Cruz as Claudio are able enough without being electrifying. There are inoffensive performances across the stage, and, in general, the company steers clear of the worst self-indulgence of which The Globe is sometimes guilty.

There is plenty of rewriting, insertions and contemporary locutions which get the biggest laughs of the evening. What we get is a palimpsest of Shakespeare’s play. We’ve grown to expect that at this venue, so there are no major surprises.

But it’s also a warm hearted, joyous production, in which the virtues of this play have not been entirely smothered. Throughout, The Globe still looks and feels like a unique and magical performing space, out of which a seemingly transported press night audience happily poured. I’ll take that.


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