REVIEW: Much Ado About Nothing | Playhouse, Melbourne
by Siobhan Argent
Sexy, energetic, youthful and colourful: not normally words you associate with playwrights who have been dead almost 400 years. Bell Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is a rollicking testament to the eternal relevance of love, betrayal and playing pranks on deserving characters.
Revamped to suit an 1940s-ish Italian mansion setting, Benedick (Toby Schmitz), Don Pedro (Matthew Walker) and Claudio (Sean Hawkins) have returned from battle with, typically, tales of their own heroics. It’s also a great excuse to kit out all the good-looking young blokes in flattering military gear, while the women have a ball in some beautifully cut ’50s ensembles. The exact period seems a little flexible, but it’s a moot point.
Hero (Alexandra Fisher) is mightily impressed by Claudio’s great deeds in battle, but Beatrice (Blazey Best) is having none of it. Acidic and quick-witted, she tears Benedick a new one in about two seconds, shooting down his expanding ego with all the quick wit she can muster. She is one of Shakespeare’s fiercest and most independent women, and Best plays Beatrice as so venomously embittered against Benedick that she may just catch fire from rage.
Benedick and Beatrice’s mutual hatred goes awry as soon as each is tricked into believing the one loves the other. What’s more seductive than flattery? While they are each barely kept in check by decorum, the carefully arranged marriage plans of Hero and Claudio begins to collapse. Thanks to some scheming by the mincing and hilariously slimy Don John (Sean O’Shea), it’s up to the other screwball lovebirds to put things back in order.
Stage design is particularly well considered, with the pool table a particular stroke of genius in terms of physical comedy. A generous lighting budget has been well utilised by lighting designer Matt Scott, who maintains a considered use of lighting effects to draw out particularly sombre or light-hearted scenes.
The supporting cast also deserve a mention: Borachio (Nathan Lovejoy), while towering head and shoulders above everyone else, also executes the role of slimey right-hand man to Don Pedro with aplomb. Max Gillies hammers out Dogberry’s malapropisms like a truly bumbling fool, and Leonato (Tony Llewellyn Jones) excels as Hero’s father, bearing all the good-natured anxiety of someone anxious to preserve his daughter’s virginity before trading her into marriage. Hero has little more to do other than look bashful until the final scenes, it seems like a missed opportunity for Fisher. Given the rest of the play made free to act up all the allusions to sex and ‘virtuous’ women for a modern audience, it seems like Hero could have been given more leverage with her interpretation of the classic virgin princess.
As for the two principals, they are well-paired and have given their characters defined shapes. Best plays Beatrice as a saucy minx, well aware of the effect that sashaying hips and a well-cut dress can have on a man. She burns through Benedick’s retorts quicker than a bushfire on dry gum leaves.
Yet it is Schmitz’s performance as Benedick that steals the show. Schmitz knows how to turn a long-legged body into physical comedy, using his goofiness to great comedic effect. Oddly enough, it doesn’t make his character appear at all bumbling; his spars with Beatrice are executed so quickly you’re choking with laughter at one hopeless comeback just as another is being uttered. Schmitz’s reactions were exaggerated on occasion, but it made little difference since they were gloriously well-timed. He’s certainly an actor to keep an eye on.
Much Ado About Nothing has always been a crowd-pleaser. But the excellence of Bell Shakespeare’s casting brings an added sparkle to the execution, while the setting and scenery adds a retro twist to the classic story of love in denial.
The details: Much Ado About Nothing is at the Playhouse, Arts Centre until June 25. Tickets on the venue website.
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