Review by Sam Waite
On the penultimate stop of its UK tour, this inclusive update of Shakespeare’s comedy brings a modern sensibility to a traditional space. For better (at times) or for worse (arguably as often) director and adaptor Robert Hastie has made the piece his own, both with a modernised setting and the diverse presence of his cast. While there is a seriousness that threatens to overbalance the play’s farcical nature, it is difficult to argue against this production as a strong example of inclusion on and off stage.
This reimagining is presented by Sheffield Theatres and Ramps on The Moon, who aim to normalise inclusion in all areas of their productions. To this effect, Much Ado prominently features a captioning screen, and the text is performed in both spoken English and British Sign Language. After being visible for some time behind glass doors towards the rear of the stage, the cast come forward at the beginning and introduce both these updates and their characters.
The first of the fourth wall breaks that pepper the evening, this introduction could be made shorter with some parts being entirely unnecessary. This is also where the awkwardness of a relaxed, inclusive sensibility jars with the performance space – I was happy to hear that people were welcome to get up and move around if not doing so impacted their enjoyment or caused distress, but the theatre itself felt too tightly packed for this to realistically happen. The welcoming of technology as a tool to enjoy the text was a welcome and more practical move, and I did wonder if this was a new addition after recent issues in New York.
Many of the performers were disabled, many being hearing impaired, at least one blind or sight impaired, and one performing some of her role in her wheelchair. As should come as a shock to no one, these actors were as much up to the task as any other performer. Indeed, wheelchair user Shreya Patel’s Ursula best encompassed the title and conceit of the whole evening – with her comical, animated reactions to what boiled down to mundane and ordinary titbits, she was making very much ado about nothing, making her one of the funniest people on stage. Also stellar are Claire Wetherall, imbuing her signing with palpable feeling as ingenue Hero, and Daneka Ethcells, bringinga bawdy, hilarious quality to Hero’s cousin Beatrice.
Unfortunately, not every actor is up to their quality, and not all of Hastie’s choices work. Against an array of accents and mannerisms from his castmate’s, Claudio (Taku Mutero) comes across as the most traditionally Shakespearean in his delivery, which along with his rarely dynamic performance gives the impression that he doesn’t fully understand the text enough to comfortably play with its presentation. This is at odds with nuanced, thought-through performances by the likes of Fatima Niemogha (tightly coiled but coolly detached as the gender-swapped “Donna Joanna”) and Karina Jones (charming as Antonia, Hero’s country-club-wife mother rather than the uncle of earlier versions).
More glaringly, the text itself loses a lot of its carefree humour in the second act, where a serious tone if often applied to what is supposed to be breezy, unimportant humour. A meaningful duologue between Benedick and Beatrice, often at odds with one another but clearly in love, loses all sense of the farce it’s supposed to be a part of. Etchells performs beautifully as Beatrice, giving real weight and dimension to a breakdown that just wasn’t written to have that kind of energy behind it. This insistence on instilling a dramatic edge to the work also slows down the performance – a text written for a breezy, fast-paced delivery, this production runs at three hours with the aid of many dramatic pauses and lingering moments that could easily be made funnier and more effective by their shortening.
Less abrasive is the set itself, a simple construction by Peter McKintosh, whose simplicity lends itself well to both the inclusivity of the piece – no major set-pieces to imagine or try to convey through sound alone – and the lack of stage directions owed to the time period. This also allows for the seamless inclusion of the captioning and BSL, directed by Emily Howlett and supported by a team of interpreters, providing clear sightlines so that characters listening in from the back of the stage to keep others in the loop can double as interpreters for the audience. Touches like this prove not only how well the diversity and inclusion at play have been thought through, but also how easily this could be applied elsewhere if more producers felt so inclined.
Much Ado About Nothing is playing until November 5th at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, before closing out its run the following week at the Salisbury Playhouse. While Shakespeare aficionados may find heavier criticisms of the play’s treatment, and those not usually inclined towards the classics may find it over-long, this is nonetheless a bold, exciting, and often successful experiment in diversifying the cast, crew and audience of British theatre.
Catch Much Ado About Nothing at Theatre Royal Stratford East until November 5th. Tickets from https://www.stratfordeast.com/whats-on/all-shows/much-ado-about-nothing
Photos by Johan Persson