13th August, 2017 (matinee)
Emma Rice has had a short and, some would say, tempestuous tenure at the helm of Shakespeare’s Globe. Her decision to allow non-natural lighting to be used in productions sparked headlines and equal amounts of criticism and praise for her new approach to the Bard. Her premature resignation suggests an underlying aversion to change on behalf of audiences, critics and supporters and focalises debates regarding the purpose of the Globe theatre. Is it primarily an archive? A museum ‘experience’ akin to York’s Jorvik centre or the battle re-enactments staged at Warwick castle? Or is it justifiably a theatre dedicated to producing new and challenging interpretations of (overly) familiar classics? As much as I understand the fascination with history, and admit to having a particular interest in Renaissance theatre (one of the reasons I wanted to visit the Globe is to see the theatre’s configuration and architecture), I would hate to have a theatrical experience bogged down by historical accuracy and the inertia that a refusal to embrace evolution would bring (why not extend this ban on electric lighting to include other contextual actualities such as all male casts, and the substitution of fake blood with pig’s blood?). This, in turn, raises questions concerning the purpose of theatre in general – to educate? To entertain? With all this in mind, for what was my first visit to the Globe, Rice’s ethos, and director Matthew Dunster’s refreshing revisioning of Much Ado About Nothing, set during the early 20th Century Mexican Revolution, proved satisfying on every level.
As Rice refused to be dictated by tradition, Dunster (no stranger to subversion, following his reimagining of Cymbeline, Imogen last year – I’ve always though Imogen would be a much more apt name for that play!) proves that Shakespeare isn’t sacrosanct. To attract new audiences, various alterations must, naturally, be made. The original sentiments still stand, but in lovingly adapting certain scenes they become more contextually appropriate, and often, much more funny. Case point: Benedick’s love song now sees his pitiful attempt to rhyme ‘Senorita’ with ‘healthy eater’. Likewise, constable Dogberry has been transformed into Dog Berry (played with fantastic pomposity and ignorance by Ewan Wardrop), an American film maker documenting Don Pedro’s (Steven John Shepherd) experiences of the revolution (mirroring the real life revolutionary figure, Pancho Villa). Here, the famous malapropisms result from a clash of cultures and language barriers, with the long-suffering Verges acting as interpreter. Yes, the humour is crass (who doesn’t love a good erection joke?) and the set up a little reminiscent of Allo’ Allo’, but Dunster creates a quirky spin which still tonally befits the ‘Shakespearean Fool’ character.
Similarly, the incorporation of vibrant Mexican culture into the play, most notably in composer James Maloney’s seamless blending of Shakespeare’s lyrics with songs inspired by traditional Mexican music, really emphasises the festive atmosphere of the wedding scenes. Aside from such aesthetics, this Much Ado resonates because of it’s an unfamiliar setting. It dislocates us, transposing both characters and audience from the cosy comfort zone of Shakespearean Sicily into unexplored territory. It makes you sit up and listen, which consequently helps to locate the drama in a specific reality, representing real class and gender issues, while also encouraging an interest in a period of history, and a culture that I was previously ignorant of. By looking towards the less obvious options, Dunster’s brave move has payed dividends both in analytical and entertainment terms.
My first impression of Dunster’s other break from tradition, recasting Don John as Juana (Jo Dockery), was one of bemusement. I’m usually all for gender bending in theatre, but my initial thought was that Don John as a character is too underdeveloped to be wasted on such a move. The trope of ‘disinherited bastard set on familial revenge’ is better drawn in King Lear’s Edmund as he is much more fleshed out, whereas Don John’s disappearance at the end of Much Ado is swiftly (and ambiguously) brushed aside. Yet, in revolutionary Mexico, where the women are as sharpshooting with their pistols as the men, and bullet belts are common garb for all, it seems much more appropriate that Juana feels put out by her disinheritance by a patriarchal society which favours her brother, and his young upstart, Claudio, over her own role in the political battle.
So far, so interesting.
The flaw in the plan arises when considering her role in besmirching Hero. If Juana is fighting against the patriarchy, why does she do so by jeopardising a fellow woman’s position? A possible solution is that in dishonouring Claudio by making him a cuckold, Juana is threatening the role of masculinity in conflict. If the opening scene portrays a post-battle reconnoitre of assets, then does Hero not partially become a living, breathing ‘spoils of war’? And in sullying Claudio’s ‘spoils’, Juana destabilises the patriarchal hierarchy that often governs conflict, revolution, and the reinstating of peacetime on masculine terms (here represented by the holy union of marriage). Consequently, this contextual gender conflict plays well into the Benedick/Beatrice relationship, the pair are matched in wits, even if not equal in status, which is what makes their coupling both refreshing and so deliciously fractious.
If I have so far been overly preachy, I apologise!
Anna Fleischle’s design is unimposing yet atmospheric. The majority of the stage houses a freight train from which the characters emerge, weary from battle. Sliding doors and multilevel hatches create simple and effective gulling scenes and the use of stilts and puppets to mimic horses is inventively droll. Dunster’s production is bolstered further by a cast which oozes chemistry and enthusiasm. Matthew Needham’s Benedick and Beatriz Romilly’s Beatrice are in equal measure endearingly oblivious and razor sharp in their repartee. The success of a Much Ado production often rests on this central relationship, and here it clicks instantly and I was rooting for them from the off. Because of this, it’s easy for Claudio and Hero to pale in comparison, yet Marcello Cruz and Anya Chalotra are so full of youthful exuberance that I cared just as much for them. Cruz displays a charming mixture of confidence and earnestness while Chalrota’s Hero is no push over, her body language making up for the character’s silence, and she remains passionate even in her naivety.
In short, I couldn’t have asked for a better first visit to the Globe. Shakespeare reimagined means there is so much more to ponder (and I just love thinking myself into knots over his plays) and enjoy. Dunster’s production is colourful, energetic, and joyous while also contributing to the levels of substance and subtext within the play. If Emma Rice’s departure means the decline of programming such as this, it will be a sad day for the Globe, Shakespeare’s legacy, and fans of theatre worldwide.
Much Ado About Nothing plays at the Globe Theatre until 15th October.