Something for Nothing
Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare
The European Theatre Group
January 14th 2004
It always feels like a privilege to see a European Theatre Group production. It's a pretty good recipe - a cast of Cambridge University's brightest young things; a play by old beardy; and a good long run in Europe to knock all the corners off, smooth out all the wrinkles and make the cast feel like conquering heroes.
Even so, this production showed itself to be better than the sum of all those parts. It wasn't simply the smooth patina of a long run that made this a joy to watch. Almost all the playing showed signs of thoughtful casting and even more thoughtful rehearsal. Ben Kerridge as Leonato is a born character actor. How could someone do so much with so little beard? Alex Lamont also powered through the play as Margaret making something interesting out of almost nothing (is she really captain of the Newnham belly dancing team?). Max Bennett gave a Billy Idol-ish performance as Don Jon. Then after a quick change he managed to point up the comedy of the tricky "clown" scenes, playing Dogberry in a way that allowed you to laugh, even if you hadn't read the footnotes in the Arden edition. If you think this isn't hard you should see Michael Keaton try to do it in the film.
This isn't one of those fancy deluxe Shakespeare plays where all the lovers have to do is a bit of sighing and snogging. There aren't going to be some faeries and rude mechanicals along in a minute to relieve the tedium. This is just your basic romantic comedy and the principals have to provide all the frills themselves. Most of the responsibility for making the play worth watching falls on the shoulders of the young lovers, Benedick (Adam Shindler) and Beatrice (Susanna Hislop). Shindler was more than up to the task, delivering a laddish performance somewhere equidistant between Martin Clunes, Hugh Grant and Darren Gough. Some of best moments of the evening were when he was alone on stage, tirelessly helping his lines off the page (at one stage literally flirting with audience participation) and always making the maximum sense of Benedick as a full-rounded character who spells Benedick with a capital BLOKE.
It was only when Beatrice and Benedick were on stage together that some of the expected fireworks failed to occur. The spine of the play is this spiky relationship. Sadly this was the one thing that was slightly limp. Maybe this was a directorial problem of not getting the volume levels right. Benedick needed to be turned down a couple of notches from "eleven" to give Beatrice a chance to shine. Or maybe it was that Susanna Hislop wasn't really comfortable in a role that needs something more than the straightforward romantic lead.
And then there's the broken rail in the path of true love's smooth running. Claudio's denunciation of Hero (the girl he is suppose to be marrying, but who he thinks he saw snogging a ginger-haired bloke the night before) was played too straight to allow it to fit with the rest of the play. If Claudio does hate Hero at this point, and her father really does want her dead, the play teeters over into melodrama and the plot jack-knifes. This is after all a comedy. There's going to be a wedding scene along any minute and we're going to have to like these people again and feel happy that they're getting married. Surely the only way to play this scene is as one of terrific uncertainty and tension. Claudio and Leonato are denouncing Hero against their better judgement, they are saying things that they can still hardly believe. If we believe that they believe what they're saying, there's no clear way back to the happy ending.
Ah well everything turned out all right in the end. The baddy ran away (probably to sit on a motorbike and snarl) and all the expected marriages occurred in the right places. I left the theatre knowing that I'll be back next year expecting yet another glorious European Theatre Group production.
16th January 2004