New Vic Theatre until Saturday 2 March
Much Ado is much loved and much performed — and one of the immediate pay-offs of a production which plays around with the setting is that it can knock your expectations so you experience it afresh.
This new production of Much Ado About Nothing from Northern Broadsides, opening at the New Vic, is set in England as troops come home from the Second World War. The females are in the Women’s Land Army and wear thick pullovers over practical trousers, with clunky brown shoes or wellies. The men are in RAF uniform and sport short-back-and-sides. So far so good.
But the commander is called Don Pedro and his brusque northern accent switches back and forth with received pronunciation and grand Shakespearean declamations. He’s also a huge measure taller and broader than Claudio, whom he will masquerade as to win the heart of Hero. Later he will mistake the brashest of Yorkshire serving lasses for this same refined and delicate Hero. Only in a play so full of transparent deceptions and self-deceptions could a director get away with such an added layer of unlikely silliness. But Conrad Nelson does just that. I found myself hearing afresh Shakespeare’s wonderful language while sitting back and enjoying the giddiness of it all.
Nelson makes the most of the helpful string of revelries that weave through the melodrama, starting with a ball celebrating victory and ending with a double marriage. He opens with a sunny ‘Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me’, cut with some delicious hints of Glen Miller. There’s a spirited tango and a surreal turn from an impromptu barber-shop quartet.
And he is well served by Isobel Middleton as Beatrice and Robin Simpson as Benedick, who “Never meet but there is a skirmish of wit between them.” There is more gentle, middle-aged flirtation than gender politicking to their verbal sparring – there’s never any doubt that they will be sitting under that apple tree together before long. It’s an invitation to relish the banter, and it works a treat.
It’s left to Claudio to show us the hurtful and very real effects of misogyny in a patriarchal society. When he is tricked into believing Hero has been unfaithful, he waits to denounce her until they are about to exchange rings at the wedding altar. The active connivance of Don Pedro and the spontaneous violence with which her father Leonato joins in rejecting her is as shocking as ever.
Comic relief and the happy ending come via the members of the local night watch, played here by a squad of mis-matched Home Guarders who look like escapees from a pilot for Dad’s Army. Dave Nellist relishes his wonderful malapropisms and admirably plays to his stature as Constable Dogberry . Anthony Hunt plays Borachio, who sells for a thousand ducats his plan for destroying Hero, like a classic 1940’s spiv.