There is so much energy packed into this performance of a shortened version of Much Ado that I left the theatre feeling quite exhausted. The likeable young cast throw themselves – sometimes literally – with complete commitment into a helter skelter take on Shakespeare’s bitter sweet comedy. It’s lots of fun with some great slapstick comedy. Sometimes they generate more heat than light but, even so, it’s a very enjoyable evening – especially to be recommended as a way into Shakespeare for younger people who may be “bard wary”.
The play opens with all members of the cast onstage doing a brilliant dance routine and this device is used again when we need to emphasise a change between acts. There is no scenery to speak of, just a flower-bedecked platform in the middle of the acting space – the theatre is set up “in the round” with two rows of seats around each of the four walls. Indeed the audience is so close to the action that we occasionally had to duck out of the way of rushing actors – and a couple of audience members found themselves recruited to play small parts in the play, memorably as part of Dogberry’s Watch.
The play tells the story of a group of soldiers on leave who descend on the household of Leonato in Messina. One of the troop, Claudio, falls in love with Hero, Leonato’s daughter but their love is nearly thwarted by another of the gang – confusingly, in this production the villain is their leader Don Pedro, the role of Don John having been cut. Despite the central love story, the play really revolves around the combative relationship between Leonato’s niece Beatrice and Benedick, another of Don Pedro’s followers. They have all the best lines and their battle of wits is what makes the play so special. Here, the two lovers give huge performances in a tiny space. Hannah Ellis is simply brilliant as Beatrice, catching both the production’s style of broad physical comedy and the subtler shades of Shakepeare’s language with real style. Christopher Neels plays the clown with charm and panache but this is sometimes at the expense of the wit that is essential to the dialogue between him and Beatrice. There are strong performances too from Remy Moynes, touching as Hero, and Ben Kerfoot, all swagger and hot blood as Claudio.
Ross McGregor has clearly decided to develop a high octane version of the play and does wonders with the limited space at his disposal. But the slapstick and the dancing, though enjoyable, do sometimes overwhelm the drama at the heart of the play. This is most evident when Dogberry and Verges get involved in the action. Chrissy Kett and Laura Cooper are both comic actors of potential but in this production there is just too much shouting and too much mugging.
At the end, the performance adds up to less than the sum of its parts. Though it’s a very clever attempt to take a totally contemporary look at the play – and some of the ideas like the dance sequences really work well – there is a sense of “let’s throw the kitchen sink at this” and some of the actors might have been told to rein it back a little. It’s an enjoyable evening but not quite Shakespeare.