Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare’s Globe

2/10

This production has the distinction, not just of being the worst production of Much Ado that I’ve had the misfortune to see, but of being the absolute worst thing I have seen put on at the Globe in 20 years.

All the hallmarks of the Globe’s recent productions were there, but this time none of them worked:

  • The action was moved to 19th Century Mexico, and the exposition and rewrites required to make this plausible were clumsy and tiresome. Scenes were punctuated by sweaty, dirt-brushed people with guns rushing about babbling in Spanish.  I cringed with discomfort.
  • Obviously, if you have Mexicans (said someone) you need Americans for the purpose of them being at enmity with each other. Cue Dogberry running around being semaphored as A.N. Annoying American hours before his character became relevant. How subtle.
  • Antonio was played by a female actor, but no-one on stage could decide whether this was a gender-blind or gender diverse casting, and so the character was she then he, then brother then sister, which felt lazy and like tokenism.
  • There were horse puppets and every opportunity was taken to put actors on stilts with horse puppets. Horses not being particularly integral to the action in Much Ado, it was a distraction. If I had liked horse puppets, I would have seen War Horse.
  • The songs were fucking awful

There is some attempt at feminist interpretation: in the lengthy set-up sequence we see Beatrice, Hero and Margaret toting guns and performing surgical procedures on wounded soldiers. But it felt unnecessary and unwarranted.

But despite this – and here’s the thing I am going to get really angry about – some genius decided to turn the female lead from a rapier wit into a cringing drunk. Beatriz Romilly‘s Beatrice treats her dialogue as the pre-smartphone equivalent of drunk tweeting. She apes cringing regret practically every time she opens her mouth, gurning and flinging her arms in a show of “Oh no, what have I said?” She’s patronising and often slows down and repeats her barbs with expansive gestures. In one scene, to indicate that she is not really aware of what she is saying, she downs repeated tequila shots before starting her tirade. And yet, by contrast, Benedick is shown in full possession of his wits. I wanted to drag the woman off the stage and yell at her, I was so enraged by her interpretation of the role.

The one saving grace was Matthew Needham, whose Benedick was funny and believable in the midst of so much mess. As far as I could tell, the rest of the audience around me was drunk enough to have no complaints, and I must confess, I envied them.

 

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Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s Globe

8/10

Twelfth Night is one of those plays I’ve always found difficult to enjoy. Now that our culture has all but abandoned the topsy turvy twelfth night tradition, Sir Toby’s japes are the only element of the plot that seem to have any shred of probability to them. Then there’s the fact that directors can never really reconcile their desire to have a “pretty” female lead with audience’s need to have someone who looks even halfway convincing in drag (the 1990s film adaptation is a prime example of this, with Imogen Stubbs feeling rather too much like Blackadder’s Bob for comfort). The japes take an uncomfortably dark turn and the denouement is wildly hasty, with significant characters disappearing abruptly, their absence explained in throwaway lines. And into all of this, you have to insert regular dances and songs. Like I said, it’s a difficult play.

The current production at Shakespeare’s Globe navigates these difficulties with aplomb. I went to a midnight matinee feeling somewhat worried about staying awake after failing to stop at home for an early evening nap. I needn’t have worried. It isn’t humanly possible to sleep through a show like this.

The action starts on a cruise ship, vibrant with disco music and 70s fashions. Sebastian and Viola are both pretty in flares, with close cut afro hairstyles. Gender-bending is the order of the day. Many of the players – notably Katy Owen (last season’s spectacular Puck) as Malvolio and Nandi Bhebhe as Fabian in heels – play opposite gender parts, with the focus on androgyny rather than drag.  This provides a far more subtle and interesting commentary on our perceptions of ‘male’ and ‘female’ than Viola’s assumption of boy’s attire.

Anita-Joy Uwajeh strikes a perfect note as Viola, alternating lash-beating timidity and boyish awkwardness. She modifies her body language to signify the change, making the disguise believable with no need for comedy facial hair.

The cast is spectacular – so much so that it is hard to single out anyone in particular. Each of them adds distinct touches that smooth out the play’s loose ends and ragged edges.Annette McLaughlin’s comic timing makes Olivia’s approach to her love life somewhat less ridiculous. Joshua Lacey’s Orsino is long-haired, leather-jacketed and oversexed, a womaniser clearly fickle enough to switch his affections from Olivia to Viola once the central ruse is up.  Elegant drag performer Le Gateau Chocolat dazzles in sequins and gives good voice as Feste and brings welcome sass and sparkle to ‘Sister’ Topaz. Carly Bawden is pert and saucy in her maid’s outfit as Maria – pining less for Sir Toby and taking more of a leading part in the action than in some other productions – egging the others on and leading their mischief. Marc Antolin – potentially the best thing in the show – is uproariously camp as a lisping Sir Andrew Aguecheek with a wardrobe that deserves its own place on the cast list. Tony Jayawardena’s kilted Sir Toby Belch for once stays on the right side of the grotesque: a drunk, for certain, but it’s clear why Maria is so taken with him. Katy Owen takes sheer delight in playing Malvolio, buzzing around the stage like a tiny, uptight mosquito, who bursts out in turn with repressed pride, rage, and love.

Music and dance enliven the parts where the plot starts to drag, and movement affords characters such as Antonio and Sebastian more charisma than they otherwise might have had. Even at the end, the cast is buzzing – and the audience are too. It’s an enlivening and uplifting show – and an excellent take on one of Shakespeare’s more unusual plays.