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Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Strong Opener for 60th Season: Much Ado About Nothing


Ben Carlson and
Deborah Hay as
Benedick and Beatrice
Photo by David Hou.

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Christopher Newton, Designed by Santo Loquasto

The Story: When the Prince's army returns triumphant from war, the young man Claudio's fancy turns to thoughts of love for Hero, the governor's daughter. His friend the prince decides to help make this match, and under the barbarous teasing of their comrade Benedick, decides to pair him up with the equally sharp Beatrice, Hero's cousin. The wittiest wooing that was ever seen follows, but when Hero is falsely accused of infidelity by the Prince and Claudio, the depth of Beatrice and Benedick's love is put to a true test.

Although the central plot of Much Ado About Nothing is about Hero and Claudio, it is usually Beatrice and Benedick who steal the show. It is just how Shakespeare wrote them - they are fully developed, they progress in knowledge and are the better for it, not to mention the quality of their dialogue. So the casting of Beatrice and Benedick is essential to the success of a production.

Christopher Newton - longtime artistic director at the Shaw Festival - chose wisely for his directorial debut at Stratford. Having worked with both Deborah Hay and Ben Carlson before at Shaw (and attended their real-life wedding), this duo is indeed a powerful force on stage. Mr. Newton knew enough to keep his Beatrice and Benedick at either end of the stage while they sparred but once their love was declared, they came together in the most touching ways - a reach for a hand, an almost embrace, a final passionate kiss.

Mr. Carlson has a gift for crystal clear delivery of the Bard's words and meanings, even as quickly spoken as Benedick's. He allows Benedick's intelligence, insightfulness and sense of fun to come through, and so it is to his credit that the one burst of violence from Benedick is truly shocking. As his equal Ms. Hay is not only as precise, she is also a master at comic timing - both physical and verbal. She has one of the best pratfalls ever choreographed, and the audience appreciated it with overwhelming applause (which meant she had to hold what had to be a very uncomfortable position for far longer than she was supposed to). Beatrice's famous words "Kill Claudio" is usually signal a moment of shift and gravity but is instead played here to great laughter - but both actors make it work beautifully.

Michael Blake as Borachio
Gareth Potter as Don John
Photo by David Hou.
This production both heightened and dropped the comedy ball in some unexpected ways. Gareth Potter gives the best version of Don John as yet seen . Usually a non-character who blusters but rarely acts, Mr. Potter made him the fool of the production - a bit of a coward, not too bright, and unwittingly laughable in his ineptness. In contrast the character who usually provides the comic-relief, Constable Dogberry, was inexplicably unfunny as played by Richard Binsley.  Then again Claire Lautier provided memorable archness as a too-flirty-for-her-own-good Margaret, while the men of the Watch were full of bonhomie but not much else.  There was also a trio of two maids and a footman who seemed to be acting out their own love-triangle, but while this may have meant to fill the space while furniture was being moved and the textual songs were being sung, it was distracting and a not a little cringeworthy.

This little trio may have been the director's way of illustrating that the play was set in Brazil at the turn of the century - little else denotes it besides their dress, their tango, the pointed beards worn by the soldiers, and the oblique reference in the program to "Henrique Oswald", a Brazilian composer of that era. Most other actors are dressed in early twentieth century gowns and suits, and at first glance the set could be Italian, or Portuguese, or Spanish... but the notes say it is Brazil, and so it must be. Or not. It really does not matter in this production.

What does matter is the gigantic staircase taking up most of stage left. Designed by Santo Loquasto, it is at first glance a beautifully rendered "Oooh" moment, perfectly fitting the house of Leonato the Governor. It gives something for Beatrice and Benedick to hide behind while eavesdropping, and an elegant entrance for Hero as a bride. But. It is in the way. The actors have to go around it, or over it, or behind it, which becomes distracting. Most importantly, it blocks the view of anyone sitting in orchestra aisles 7 through 9 for some of the most important and funny scenes. It  is not only irresponsible of the director and designer, it is also inexcusable for an organization that is pleading for audiences not only to attend, but to pay top dollar in a recovering economy.
Timothy Stickney
as Friar Francis,
Deborah Hay and
Ben Carlson as
Beatrice and Benedick.
Photo by David Hou.

If, however, one plans ahead and get seats in aisle 3, there are other strong and worthy performances to admire. Timothy Stickney as Friar Francis conveys the power of his convictions without being over-the-top. James Blendick portrays a father in all his tenderness and hurt, and morphs into a powerful opponent to the Prince. Juan Chioran is beautifully nuanced as Don Pedro, changing from friend and comrade to shocked and stiff Royal Ruler, illustrating wistfulness and wisdom at various moments. 

Too bad about that staircase though. 

Much Ado About Nothing continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre until October 27. I recommend sitting in the balcony or in orchestra aisles 1 through 4 for best viewing.

1 comment:

  1. A few hundred school kids were treated to an "acoustic" version of Much Ado yesterday as the sound system was disagreeable. It is situations like this, we were told by a charming Victor Dolhai and the stage manager, that are best remembered. Beware of any theatre that requires electricity, as the old saying goes. And starting less than 1/2 hour late, the Stratford actors proved once again why it is the best theatre in the world.

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