Much Ado About Nothing at Wiltons Music Hall review ****

Much Ado About Nothing

Wilton’s Music Hall, 19th November 2019

The Tourist has been very much taken with previous Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory productions, Othello and Henry V, both here and on home turf in Bristol. This latest, MAAN, directed by Elizabeth Freestone, as was Henry V, and who will be bringing Stef Smith’s take on A Doll’s House to the Young Vic next year, didn’t quite match these predecessors but still provided an entertaining, if inconsistent, evening of Shakespeare comedy.

At least it did when I snuck downstairs in the second half. I had forgotten just how dire the sound is upstairs at WMH, blighted by reverb, even if there are now some comfy perches. Not a big deal, and for some of the actors no deal at all, but it did mean that I had to strain to hear the lines of, particularly Alice Barclay as Ursula, Dorothea Myer-Bennett as Beatrice and Imran Momen as Claudio. And, in Shakespeare, every word counts, however often ypu may have seen or read the play. In fact the more viewings the richer the language becomes.

Now MAAN is a comedy. And, unlike some of the Bard’s other comedies, it largely sticks to the make the punters laugh script. Even so, in amongst the comic couplings and the gossip, rumour, eavesdropping and misunderstandings, the “noting” of the original title, there are some dark ideas, to do with honour and patriarchal dominance, as Daddy Leonato (Christopher Bianchi) farms out his daughter Hero (Hannah Bristow) to Claudio and doesn’t for a moment consider she might be innocent of the charge of adultery. As ever with WS there is a questioning of gender stereotypes, even as those stereotypes are played out, which is what drives the comedy and is what Ms Freestone alights on in her interpretation through her gender blind casting, notably Georgia Frost (who stood out as she did in Kneehigh’s Dead Dog in a Suitcase), as Don Pedro’s (Zachary Powell) here sister Don Jon, and, less successfully Louise Mai Newberry as Dogberry.

Of course MAAN largely succeeds or fails on the “chemistry” between Beatrice and Benedick and here Ms Myer-Bennett, who it has been my pleasure to see in multiple plays in the last few years, and Geoffrey Lumb, who is a fine, and experienced, Shakespearean, were up for the fight. Verbal sparring only, of course, but sufficiently pointed throughout that at the end, you still sensed they would be chary of each others’ true feelings long after the ceremonies when we had all left Messina. Maybe not quite up to the benchmark set by Lisa Dillon and Edward Bennett in Christopher Luscombe’s RSC version from 2017 but still eminently watchable. Ms M-B’s Beatrice is, by some way, the smartest person in the room, but wields her fierce intelligence deliberately. Underneath the boorish exterior typical of his profession and sex there lurks a sensitive soul in Mr Lumb’s Benedick.

Some of the other relationships in the slimmed down dramatis personae don’t work quite as well. This tender Claudio’s love for his demure Hero persuades, his harsh about-turn later on less so. The soldiers’s banter works, the sibling rivalry between the Don’s seems forced. The party, complete with superhero costumes, clever, excites, the pivot to the disastrous wedding day, feels telegraphed, and the switch back to what is, in fairness, not the most hilarious Watch scene I have ever encountered, seemed to take this audience by surprise.

All in all, whilst there are some splendid passages and performances in the production. all set against Jean Chan’s delightful design, the rhythm of this STF production is just a little too erratic. However, once I was up close, the largely prose dialogue was, without exception (which is not always the case), pin sharp in its delivery. Whilst the look, feel and intention of the production is to present a MAAN for all time, that it works is largely down to this lucid approach.

Minus the echo of course. Won’t make that mistake again.

Henry V at the Tobacco Factory Bristol review *****

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Henry V

Tobacco Factory Theatre, 22nd September 2018

Hello. I feel another bout of hyperbole coming on. It could just be that cumulative exposure is making me realise what the smarter punters and all the luvvies have known for hundreds of years, that nothing comes close to Shakespeare. It could be that my first visit to the Tobacco Factory has revealed a near perfect space, intimate but airy, in the round, with the right vibe of industrial chic, (and a good value curry in Thali next door). It could be that the Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory company, under retiring founder Andrew Hilton, continues to churn out top quality productions of the Bard, and a few others, as it has done since its founding in 2000. Last year’s Othello set the ball rolling for me (Othello at Wilton’s Music Hall review ****) and I now intend to make a note in the diary for future pilgrimages to Bristol.

However I think the special ingredient in this particular production lies in the direction of Elizabeth Freestone. Ms Freestone is not afraid to offer up a contemporary slant on big Will, which usually works for me. Indeed she is the director behind Jeanie O’Hare’s composition of Queen Margaret at the Royal Exchange Manchester as we speak. Queen Margaret is one of Shakespeare’s best, no question, and I gather the magnificent jade Anouka is doing the business in the title role, though she will need to to get anywhere near the visceral walloping Sophie Okonedo gave the character in The Hollow Crown. (Can’t wait to see ms Okonedo as Cleo at the NT which the critics are loving).

What is patriotism? How to tread the line between the glorification and the senseless horror of war? What makes a “national hero” and how does this get weaved into a nation’s view of itself? How does Henry go from playboy Hal to warrior king? Is he just a cipher, whatever we want him to be? Sincere, scheming or both simultaneously? How to think about Katherine? Simpering pawn or power broker? A lot of good questions to ask at any time but especially when a bunch of utter cocks are playing dangerously fast and loose with our national identity. Once again Shakespeare shows he is the man for all ages when it comes to shedding light on the business of politics.

Lily Arnold’s blissfully simple set, four metal cages filled with stones, is put to work as battlefield and meeting hall, military and political space. A quartet of strip-lights, (recycled from Othello I’ll warrant), megaphone, radio and mic, suitcases and kit-bags, bottles of voddy, clip-boards, melancholic Union Jack and Tricolore. It’s all you really need. Less can so often be more in both the history plays and the tragedies. Go with the standard battle-dress/fatigues of so many modern-dress productions because it just works, but then add some twists to underscore the symbolism. A tutu dress for Mistress Quickly, a sharp suit for Cambridge and the King of France, a T shirt for King Henry, “the Artist formerly known as Prince” – I loved that – and turn Katherine into an imposing skinhead with elegant purple frock-coat suit and DM’s to match.

Cut out superfluous roles, in this interpretation, and double up (most intriguingly Chorus/Burgundy, Canterbury/King of France, Cambridge/Fluellen, York/Bourbon and Nym/Orleans). The armies are interchangeable after all. Lose a few of those pesky Dukes on both sides, Westmoreland, Exeter and York on the English side, with just Cambridge to face the traitorous music, and Bourbon and Orleans, and eventually Burgundy, on the French side. Make Exeter a skilled, female, negotiator. Slim down the English and French armies as well, and lose Queen Isabel and, in a real coup, merge the Dauphin into Katherine (and thus make her relationship with Orleans potentially very weird). And turn the Chorus into a detached, Bristolian, history lecturer.

Start off with a big party night choreographed to Boys Will Be Boys. Make Henry physically and metaphorically begin to stand tall as we move through the battles and make Katherine fight him and the English tooth and nail to the end. Don’t make too much fuss about those tennis balls. Let Henry whizz through the “breach speech”. Turn Katherine’s comedy English/French body part translation into a bitter and furious lament for lover Orleans which scares Henry (and us) witless. See Montjoy humiliated in defeat. Watch Henry only just keep it together after the brutal dispatch of Bardolph then wipe away the tears to receive the patronising French embassy. Ensure maximum ambivalence for our Harry as he wanders the camp for this is surely where the mantle of power is most keenly felt. Believe that Henry is probably bluffing when he threatens the citizens of Harfleur so belligerently.

The comedy relief of Pistol, Nym, Bardolph, Quickly and the Boy doesn’t fare quite as well in this production but their cannon fodder status, even as accident, certainly does. When Exeter reads out the list of the English dead at Agincourt the Boy is “none else of name” but we know his pointless sacrifice. A comparatively modest Harry, as here, makes Pistol’s over the top grandiosity less of a counterpoint. Fluellen is as annoying as ever though.

Now young Ben Hall has a bit of history here having played Henry V at the Guildhall when a student. He obviously has the genes for the theatre being the grandson of Sir Peter, nephew of Edward, (now moving on from Hampstead Theatre), and son of producer Christopher. You probably know him as the bespectacled tutor of Gerry and would be suitor of Margo in The Durrells off the telly, (a Hall family affair of sorts). He left an impression in the recent RSC Coriolanus but here he steps up and given a very interesting performance. Deliberatively tentative and awkward in parts, not entirely conversational but certainly not a master of oratory, with shaved head and red beard, he is believable as soldier if not, even in victory, as king. He spits out the lines too rapidly at the start but as Henry rises to the challenge so his speech becomes more measured, though never entirely, assured, as his disturbing “wooing” of Katharine at the end shows. He is not Olivier’s square-jawed hero, Branagh’s reborn statesman or Lester/Hytner’s war criminal hardman. Ben Hall’s Hal is constantly “wrestling with the moral responsibility of what it means to be a good leader” as Ms Freestone says in the programme. That crown certainly still lies uneasy on that head.

Offering us an androgynous Katherine who is near Henry’s equal in terms of destiny, passion, integrit,y as well as duplicity and xenophobia, with the same hair-cut to boot, is inspired. It is hard to take your eyes off Heledd Gywnn. She prowls the stage with an air of aggressive disdain, coming on all Joan of Arc like, (she popped up a decade, and one play, later). You just know that marriage isn’t going to solve anything at the end.

I was also drawn to the performances of Joanne Howarth as the patient Chorus who at one point is moved to tears, Alice Barclay’s largely composed Exeter, Luke Grant’s York/Bourbon, Zachary Powell’s Nym/Orleans, David Osmond’s verbose Fluellen and Melody Brown’s seasoned Gower. The re-gendering here doesn’t shout out. It just works.

Matthew Graham’s contrasting lighting design and Giles Thomas’s martial though still unobtrusive sound design all contributed to this thoughtful interpretation and experienced movement director Lucy Cullingford, even with this thinned out cast, was at the top of here game. There are some astonishing tableaux in this production, though nothing feels consciously artful. Elizabeth Freestone and Lily Arnold took visual inspiration from the battlefield art of WWI, (go see the Aftermath exhibition on now at Tate Britain for some of the most striking). I can see that and it also reminds us just how after this corner of Northern France has been the host of carnage. (Aftermath at Tate Britain review ****).

For me this is a near perfect production, considered, insightful, innovative and genuinely relevant. The company is drilled to perfection and battle hardy and it looks and moves beautifully. Like I say at the top, it could just be that nobody does it better than Will, but there are many ways to skin the ambiguity of this particular dramatic cat, and it still needs an inspired creative team and cast to bring the verse to life. STF is taking the production on tour so if you are lucky enough to be anywhere near these venues on these dates I implore you to get tickets.

9-13 Oct – Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough
16-20 Oct – Dukes Theatre, Lancaster
23-27 Oct – Malvern Theatres
30-3 Nov – Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds
6 -10 Nov – Exeter Northcott