Anything goes in Much Ado at the end of WW2.
Much Ado About Nothing, Criterion Theatre, Coventry, to May 18.
The building that dominates the set is half-timbered with a thatched roof. Suitably Elizabethan and Shakespearean then? In origin maybe, but we’ve moved on several centuries from the 1590s when the play was written. It’s still the house of Leonato, governor of Messina, whose daughter Hero is betrothed to Claudio, one of the officers returning from war. But this is not some skirmish in late 16 th -century Italy; it’s the Second World War. The opening lines are from another resonant voice in the English language – that of Winston Churchill proclaiming the end of the war in Europe. Cue a roll in the hay on VE Day for one of the lively land girls and a local yokel. We are in Warmington. More likely Walmington-on-Sea rather than Warmington near Stratford. Yes, there are elements of Dad’s Army in this imaginative adaptation of one of the Bard’s least memorable works. Much Ado About Nothing: the clue’s in the title. Still, under Pete Baguley’s direction, a vibrant cast give the play a new lease of life. And more. At its core is the combative relationship between Benedick and Beatrice. As ever, Jon Elves and Cathryn Bowler rise to the occasion and give those roles just the right mixture of vituperate verbal jousting with a vulnerability to sensitivities that lingers from a previous relationship.
There are other fine performances – too many, in fact, to list in their entirety. Paul Forey gives us a splendidly camp Dogberry in charge, if that’s the right word, of a bunch of bumbling watchmen that would make the Walmington Home Guard appear like the SAS. Johnny Smythe captures the insouciant arrogance of Claudio. And it’s good to see youthful Criterion newcomer Luke McDonald take on the role of Borachio with such assurance. By the end the cast is dancing to Glenn Miller and the audience are clapping along. Even if we are in 1945, it’s much ado about something new.
Shakespeare boldly goes into a new frontier, writes Steve Chilton
The director’s bold attempt to contemporise Shakespeare’s comedy by setting it in demob-happy Warmington at the end of the Second World War, seemed a shot at the wrong target as the plot was staked out. As Pete Bagley acknowledged in his programme notes, it is the archaic language and customs of the Bard’s era which are the barrier to appreciating his full genius. A change of setting would not, on the face of it, make the plot clearer for those of us who expect a helping of doublet and hose with our Shakespeare. In fact, it would surely hinder. And so it seemed in the opening salvo when you could be excused further bewilderment at khaki-clad troops descending on a village spouting Shakespearean verse one minute, and dancing to big band swing the next. A soliloquy delivered to the background of A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square? Not one for the purists, that’s for sure. And yet It worked, thanks in no small part to the exuberance of a fine ensemble performance in which hardly a word was slipped, and some clever audience-pleasing skits which the change of era and location allowed. Much Ado is often referred to as Shakespeare’s romcom, a sort of Two Weddings and a False Funeral, without Hugh Grant’s swearing. But the humour in this production owed as much to Dad’s Army ( I’m sure Shakespeare never wrote "You Stupid Boy" as an aside) as the village Watch took on the mantle of Captain Mainwaring's men. Ironically, for all the sanctity of staying true to the words what Bill wrote, for me the funniest scene relied on not a single syllable being uttered by the eavesdropping Benedick (pushed to full chauvinistic-pig potential by Jon Elves). His acrobatics in an imagined undergrowth stole the first act. Beatrice, his former lover turned enemy, artfully played by Cathryn Bowler with a well-judged performance, was a suitably cold and calculating opponent well able to cut through his pomposity with her acid tongue. Unlike the soppy Four Weddings script we are never convinced there will be a happy ending for this pair. Instead, we get a good old sing-along at the end. Echoes of the chorus “the boys will entertain you” from It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, perhaps. So hats off to the director, the means justified the end. Entertaining it was, but it would benefit from some cutting in the over-long preamble at the opening, and maybe the Dad’s Army overstays its welcome in the second act. Cut Shakespeare? Why not? In this setting, anything goes.
For tickets go to: www.criteriontheatre.co.uk