What walks like Shakespeare, talks like Shakespeare, but isn’t Shakespeare? It’s tough to keep an audience in suspense at a Romeo and Juliet or a Hamlet production these days – those tragic endings don’t catch too many people by surprise anymore. But the team behind I Know You Of Old, produced by the young company Golem! at the Hope Theatre in Islington, is aiming for just such an unsettling of audience expectation in an event centered on disorientating viewers familiar with the Bard’s Much Ado About Nothing.
I Know You Of Old, directed by Anna Marsland, takes as its starting point Much Ado’s disastrous wedding which arrives more than halfway through the source play: Claudio has left Hero at the altar, violently accusing her of infidelity, and Hero’s now been reported dead. In this three-actor re-crafting, Claudio repentantly vows over Hero’s coffin that he will unite the witty, sparring pair of Beatrice (Hero’s cousin) and Benedick to make up for his cruel treatment of the deceased Hero (a lot of good that will do her).
The production swiftly runs into two major difficulties. Firstly, the text: David Fairs (who also plays Benedick) has built a script using only the language of the play, most of which is taken out of its original context, scrambled up, and given to different characters to speak. The palpable effort of making these old lines fit fresh situations weighs down all the proceedings. As an exercise – if you take apart Shakespeare, can you put him back together again and tell a new story? – it’s an interesting idea, but the execution yields little that adds colour or sheds light. Except for the absurd twist ending, Fairs’ adherence to the text of the original play limits him to constructing a plot that feels like it has come from the recollections of someone who saw Much Ado while half-asleep. Perhaps that haziness is part of the desired effect?
The other issue: in the original Much Ado, Claudio’s betrayal of Hero and her purported death act as the catalyst for Beatrice and Benedick to grow up and face facts about their feelings for each other. I Know You Of Old claims to take Hero’s victimhood more seriously than Shakespeare does in the original, but Beatrice (Sarah Lambie) and Benedick, instead of maturing in the aftermath, here relive all the bickering and bantering from their early scenes together before darkness or cruelty entered their world. Rather than widening the grey perimeter of Shakespeare’s boisterous comedy, this re-imagining merely muddies it: why would this bereaved trio behave quite so festively standing over Hero’s tomb? (Conor O’Kane does make an unusually emotional Claudio – he’d be well cast in a production of Much Ado.)
I was frequently reminded of another work that plays fast and loose with Shakespeare’s text: Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. That opus intersperses scenes from Hamlet with Stoppard’s incisive, contemporary dialogue. Like Shakespeare always did, Stoppard creates a text by prioritizing the story he wants to tell. I Know You Of Old, in contrast, derives its narrative from the pieces produced by stretching and jumbling Much Ado About Nothing. A curious academic experiment, sure, but the lab results are in, and this play would be better served by using Shakespeare as a jumping-off point, not as an obstacle to telling an unfamiliar tale with clarity and care.
I Know You Of Old is playing at the Hope Theatre until July 1.