Fittingly, on the day thousands of young people across the country were finding out A-level results and where they may or may not be off to in September, Oxford University’s Drama Society (OUDS) continues their inaugural tradition of touring Shakespeare with Much Ado About Nothing at the Southwark Playhouse before a visit to Guildford and a four-stop tour of Japan.
On receiving the programme, I was dubious of director Max Gill’s notes, that seemed to be attempting to justify his 1950’s Sicilian interpretation before anything had happened. On further reading of the programme, you discover that this cast of Oxford’s great and good boast a wide range of credits – more or less all of them had been involved with runs in Edinburgh and six of them state they want to become actors or pursue a career in the arts.
One of Shakespeare’s greatest love stories: Benedick and Beatrice despise each other and then miraculously fall in love with help from some tactically misleading conversations from their friends.
As coincidental as it was that this was A-level results day, it was also appropriate that Jack Wills had unveiled their autumn collection, as this performance was only impressive for its jawlines. Jordan Waller as Benedick did some credible Kenneth Branagh impressions but too often played the arrogance string; the beauty of Benedick is that he is shown to have a soft side early on in his two most famous speeches and it’s the covering up of his sensitivities that make him endearing and humorous. Unfortunately, the actor gets ahead of the character and no emotional attachment is ever realised, bar the lady in row A who gets a VIP view of Waller’s crotch. Jeremy Neumark-Jones and Jessica Norman’s relationship as the two supposed love-doves, Claudio and Hero, is awkward and loveless; there just seemed to be an absent of truth behind anything loving they say to one another. Ruby Thomas showed hope as Beatrice but lacks commitment in what is one of Shakespeare’s assertive female roles; she does, however, exhibit a sense of knowing what she’s talking about – something which is evident in all those who are reading English at the university: Matt Gavan’s fatherly Don Pedro was convincing and Barnaby White’s Don John was correctly threatening.
Max Gill’s Sicilian style, bar studying joint honours in Italian and Russian, was just plain random. Looking at all the modern Shakspeares in London currently, they are mostly linked to a particular event or circumstance in history as evidence that these great stories are timeless. The only thing that linked this production of Much Ado About Nothing to Sicily in the 1950’s was the ever-green ivy. The blocking was static and clumsy.
One impressive thing about this production is the fact that after starting life in Oxford, it has travelled to the RSC Stratford, London and is next venturing off to Guildford and Japan, so special mentions should go to producer, Aidan Grounds, production manager, Isabella Anderson and University Drama Officer, David Ralf. Ironically, towards the bottom end of the cast list, Rys Bevan, Andrew McCormack and Ollo Clark are about to take their acting ambitions seriously by going on to train at Central, LAMDA and Oxford School of Acting respectively, which poses the question as to why those who have stated their intentions of becoming actors aren’t taking the time to learn the trade. I wouldn’t go and lecture in French, because I haven’t studied French!
Upon leaving another thought popped up: the OUDS boast funding from Cameron Mackintosh’s Foundation amongst, undoubtedly, another long list of funders, and are securing programming in some of the UK’s most respected venues. Thousands of exciting and talented emerging companies are living on a knife’s edge in Edinburgh and will not even get a look into any of the opportunities that are offered to that university up the M40. Shame really.
Much Ado About Nothing plays at the Southwark Playhouse until 18 August before touring to Yvonne Arnaud Theatre (5-8 Sept) and a four-stop tour in Japan. Ticket details at www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk