Monday, August 1, 2022

Much Ado

Much Ado
Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Madeleine Withington
Flight Path Theatre
July 29 – August 13, 2022

Director and actors must be inventive to deliver the much performed Much Ado About Nothing with freshness and vitality, and director Madeleine Withington’s band of adventurous actors achieve just that. It is new for them, and as they translate their discovery of the pleasures of Shakespearean comedy into the world of disco and clubbing, they revitalise Shakespeare’s perennial concern with social coding, marriage and sibling rivalry.

The smoky befogged atmosphere and the changing colour of the shimmering foil backdrop vigorously oppose the rigid checkerboard floor of the stage set (designer, Ash Bell) visually expressing the tension between successful social performance and the rigorous calculation that goes into maintaining it. The frequent resort to bottles arranged temptingly on the bar suggest that the tension of maintaining one’s effortlessly cool image is an immense strain in this heavily prescribed modern version of Renaissance court life.

The production opens with an amusing dance routine performed by the young nobles newly returned from a military skirmish to celebrate at “Lordes” – a club owned by the elegant Leonata (Suzann James).  Top of the power pyramid is Don Pedro (Tristan Black) fittingly attired in an orange suit, the young lover to be, Claudio (Idam Sondhi) in a pale pink suit, a nonchalant Benedick (Steve Corner) in gold fleck, and the villain of the piece, Don John (Alexander Spinks), the bastard brother of Don Pedro, in white, all projecting confidence and eligibility. It is a performance, for as the action unfolds, not only the cold rather than cool Don John already shamed and shaped by the circumstances of his birth, but all are also unmasked as vulnerable to the pressure of social disapproval.

By contrast, Leonata’s brash and beautiful niece, Beatrice (an exuberant and captivating Hal Jones), flouts social rules and, like the resistant Benedick, is accepted for her own self-evaluation as a free spirit. The two spar wittily together, expend their energy on insults and to an observer, like the affable but pragmatic Don Pedro, are not – as he would like them to be – “productive”. He devises a plan to bring them together which depends upon letting them both believe they are each condemned by their friends for being too proud to admit their love for each other. It works and the two eventually submit for the sake of social acceptance. Both Corner and Jones give the Shakespearean observation that love is a “scam” and marriage a plot its tragi-comical intensity.

While technically speaking the main narrative is the sad betrayal of Beatrice’s friend and Leonata’s daughter Hero (a sweet-faced Sarah Greenwood), her more traditional tale pales in significance besides the high-octane sub-plot of Beatrice and Benedick. Nevertheless, its importance lies in the brutality with which Don Pedro, Claudio and Leonata reject Hero believing her guilty of the false charge brought against her by the spiteful Don John. Their fear that they may be dishonoured by association leads them to accept a story so manifestly unlikely.

A lovely performance by Lib Campbell as Dogberry the parish constable who, after a comical procession of misused words, eventually reveals Don John’s machinations and brings about a bizarre resolution once again devised by Don Pedro. It seems that deception can be used to achieve constructive or destructive outcomes … and while all ends in dancing we are left to meditate on this.

A high-energy production, with a team of actors – including Martin Quinn, Mym Kwa, Nick Barraclough and Jack Elliot Mitchell – who seem to be enjoying their roles to the hilt, and well-worth seeing for its quirky transplantation of Renaissance court conduct into the modern and equally demanding code of effortless cool.

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theatre@ssh.com.au

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