Shakespeare was a clever chap. I think we can all agree that certain plays in his canon are among the best theatrical works ever written – ‘Hamlet’ is considered the finest portrait of the human condition, ‘Macbeth’ a punchy Elizabethan thriller, ‘Richard III’ is still chiefly known through Shakespeare’s invention than the actual history, and there are countless productions of ‘King Lear’, ‘The Dream’ and ‘Twelfth Night’ throughout the world every year.
But which of the supremely impressive output so cleverly melds together the richness of language, the razor quick wit, the broad comedy, the dark underbelly, and the sheer joyousness of Shakespeare that ensures his texts are still devoured by millions worldwide? Well, I’d plump for ‘Much Ado about Nothing’, a longstanding crowd-pleaser that unashamedly hurls shocks and surprises at the audience, as well as huge dollops of slapstick and romance, and all without schmaltz. The plot is relatively simple but twists and turns unexpectedly. Benedick and Beatrice are in love, and so are Claudio and Hero; however, whilst the latter pair announce their engagement almost immediately after the men’s return from war, the former duo stubbornly refuse to give into their feelings and instead jibe and jest their way through life. Whilst schemes are planned to bring the sparring partners together, Don John, the illegitimate brother of the Prince of Arragon, seeks revenge on Claudio for his overthrow and plots to create chaos among the household. Shakespeare thrusts at the audience a world of failed love, longing, treachery, foolery, and redemption, interweaving scenes of pure farcical fun with some of quiet wistfulness, blackly humorous, and even icily harsh – the famous wedding scene sent a shiver up my spine. Clarity is important, real connections between characters even more so, but essentially, a sense of unabashed joy needs to permeate this play to lift it to the heavens.
Happily, in David Crilly’s gleeful production, set against a magnificently pretty and flower-strewn pergola in Cambridge’s King’s College, what begins as a pleasantly bright and breezy evening turns into a compellingly alive study of love, revenge, and forgiveness. There isn’t a weak link in the cast and Crilly’s direction manages to be sharp and precise but simultaneously dynamic – a jaunty song opens proceedings perfectly, the local constable whirls around the stage on a trolley, blasting a horn, Beatrice
hilariously gets a soaking, Hero’s shaming is almost unbearable in its savagery, and there’s a boisterous fight sequence with more gags than a Bob Hope concert. Actors explode on to the stage from all angles and thunder through the sparkling dialogue as though it runs in their blood. It’s simple. It’s stripped back. It’s invigorating.
Gemma Paget’s Beatrice has a spiky humour, a fire in her belly, and just a hint of sadness. Resisting the temptation to overplay, Paget often brings scenes to life with her infectious spirit with occasional nods to a deep-seated vulnerability. Her cathartic rant which winds up with her ordering Benedick to “Kill Claudio” is very well-judged, bursting with frustration and passion. She also complements Rory Thersby’s dry-witted, often belligerent Benedick, a painfully louche joker insisting on remaining a bachelor but who suddenly turns giddy with love. At home with the intelligent, throwaway asides, often with a cheeky eye roll to the audience, Thersby also proves he is highly adept at physical comedy; tumbling from ladders, hurling himself into flowerbeds, and assuming the role of an overblown Frenchman at the masked ball. Although at the centre of proceedings, Thersby and Paget blend in with the company and never threaten to hijack the play and their relationship feels all the more human and truthful for it.
As a warm and weighty Leonato, the fruity-voiced Rob Goll is a sturdy and powerful presence throughout, breaking into more serious territory in the second half with a performance that suggests he is no stranger to tragedy either. While Goll brings the gravitas of the older generation, Amy Wright and Christopher Arkeston inject the energy of youth; as Hero, Wright is a kind, innocent Daddy’s girl but with a twinkle in her eye and Arkeston’s Claudio gullible and gangly, hot-headed but certainly not cruel.
The superb Adam Elms makes for a magnetic Don John, stammering and idiotic but also chilling with his slippery deviousness and laser eyes as he lurks in the shadows – his icy stare to Hero as he lies about her chastity chilled me to the bone. It contrasts strikingly with his hilarious Dogberry, a sweetly pompous local bobbie always looking to God, complete with nasal Yorkshire accent and Chaplinesque walk. Elms’ comic timing could not be bettered (indeed, he won an exit round on opening night) but the masterstroke is to hint at the constable’s vulnerability – when berated by a prisoner, he is suddenly stung; his lip trembles, tears fill his eyes, and he slopes off sadly to lick his wounds. And as the devilish, cock-of-the-walk Borachio, Michael Cummings slyly reveals himself to be not only a drunkard and seducer but, more tellingly, the one with the true power to tear the family apart.
Crilly and his cast appear to be in cahoots with the Bard himself. After my visits to the magnificent ‘Coriolanus’, ‘The Comedy of Errors’, and ‘The Winter’s Tale’ last year, I wasn’t sure how this summer’s offerings would exceed my expectations. However, if this beautiful rendition of ‘Much Ado’ is anything to go by, the thirtieth anniversary of this festival will certainly be one to remember.
***** Review by Rosalind Redford.
Until July 29th, Kings’ College Gardens, Cambridge (Matinee, Sat 15th).