Mappa Mundi’s production of Much Ado About Nothing is an entertaining and engaging interpretation of Shakespeare’s tale of quarrelling lovers and dastardly trickery, in which it is the women who are placed firmly centre stage. This is in part due to director Richard Nichols’ decision to set the play during the inter-war period, when women were battling for rights and recognition in a rapidly changing society, but also because the three female cast members all deliver stellar performances that light up the stage.
The action has been transposed from Italy to a small British village, and it is here that we meet the two couples at the heart of the play. Beatrice and Benedick swear their hatred for each other and snipe at each other at every given opportunity, while Hero and Claudio fall in love at first sight, their engagement orchestrated by the Prince, Don Pedro. It is the trickery of others that brings the former couple together as they are conned into believing each is already in love with the other; but the trickery of the Prince’s jealous brother Don John is far crueller, ruining the marriage of Hero and Claudio with the spreading of a vicious lie.
Lynne Seymour is an excellent Beatrice: strong, witty and defiant in her refusal to conform to the pressure to marry, and delighting in her war of words with Benedick; then later raw with anger and hurt at Hero’s treatment by Claudio. Liam Tobin is a brilliant sparring partner as Benedick, and captures all the humour of his efforts to eavesdrop on the conversation about Beatrice’s supposed loved for him, crawling around the set and meowing like a cat when he knocks over a bucket. Gwawr Loader brings a spark to Hero that avoids the usual frustrating portrayal of her as completely passive in the face of the unjust accusation of unfaithfulness; and Nicola Reynolds is a fun and flirty Margaret. But it is as Mistress Dogberry and Mistress Verges that these two really shine – thanks to a brilliant decision to transform the two guards into a kind of female ARP (Air Raid Precautions) double act. The audience at Lakeside were roaring with laughter at their clowning and physical comedy, and it was certainly the funniest interpretation of the roles I’ve ever seen.
There were a few quibbles about the setting – we were told the play is set in England in the 20s and 30s, between the wars, but the design seemed to be suffering from cognitive dissonance: amidst the faded British bunting and fairy-lights, the garden itself seems Italianate, with balustrades and arbors. This perhaps would not have been so problematic had it not been crammed with a huge amount of furniture, which spent a long time being moved in slightly clunky scene changes, which often seemed unnecessary. But this production is definitely worth seeing for the excellent clowning and wit of the female performers, who tie the piece together superbly, and some creative directorial decisions on the part of Richard Nichols.
Reviewed for Left Lion