Upon entering the Watford Palace Theatre (after a surprising quick journey from Euston) I am utterly charmed by the sand bags, air raid warnings and women in vintage army uniforms dotted about the foyer. There is no mistaking the setting of the Artistic Director Brigid Larmour’s staging of one of Shakespeare’s best loved comedies, Much Ado About Nothing. This immersive element is apt given that the play itself is here imagined as playing out against the back-drop of a bomb-damaged theatre during the 1940s. Once inside the auditorium, the set is designed to look as if the audience is looking out on back of a bombed-out version of the Watford Palace itself, with the evening’s bill of entertainment carrying on regardless. In reality, the Palace escaped bombing during the war, but did continue to put plays on throughout the Blitz, as did many other London theatres.
Much Ado is Larmour’s first Shakespeare production at the Palace since 2007, and to her credit she doesn’t shy away from taking risks. The wartime setting and the all-female cast marry well with each other given the context of being an ‘affectionate homage to the servicewomen of World War Two’. When most men were called up to fight, women stepped into their roles – and excelled in them. The jolly post-battle atmosphere of Shakespeare’s original setting is elegantly transposed onto a post-Battle of Britain-esque extended country house party, much of the action centred on the courtship of two pairs of lovers; Claudio and Hero, and Beatrice and Benedick.
Larmour makes the dramaturgical decision not to change any pronouns, though the women playing the men aren’t quite playing them as men – there is not a fake moustache in sight. The effect is one in which it seems like everyone in the play is a gay woman, but some are butch and some are femme. I would have liked to see Larmour stage the play fully in this world and to play up the element of gay wartime romance à la Sarah Waters’s The Night Watch. Nevertheless, I understand that it would have been difficult and may have involved fiddling around too much with the script in order for it to make sense. To attempt it would have meant further muddying the quagmire of gender politics of this particular play.
This production sees the play cut to just over two hours – but judiciously so. It feels neither rushed nor lacking any crucial sections. Much Ado is one of a minority of Shakespeare plays written mostly in prose rather than verse, which lends itself easily to the updated setting. Under Larmour’s careful direction the prose almost sings – not only is it easy to understand Shakespeare’s often complex phrasings, but the frequent double-entendres land unfailingly well with the audience.
The real comedic hero here is Joanna Brookes’ Dogberry and her ramshackle Dad’s Army of incompetent watchmen, with Rebekah Hinds’ cockney Borachio coming in a close second. Emily Tucker’s Beatrice is rather more joyful, less cynical than most portrayals of one of Shakespeare’s fieriest heroines, but I rather enjoy seeing the softer side to the character. When pitted against Anna O’Grady’s swaggering Benedick, flirtatious quips abound, playing up the ‘merry’ in the ‘merry war’ between them.
Overall, this is a less serious take on the recent trend of all-female imaginings of Shakespeare, arguably sparked by Phyllida Lloyd’s 2012 Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse. It is lively, fun and refreshing. There are several enjoyable nods to Watford itself, including the heavy Dad’s Army parody (creator Jimmy Perry was once Artistic director of the Watford Palace). The Palace, probably best known for its Christmas pantomimes, even brings an element of panto to Shakespeare in slapstick humour and a gloweringly villainous Don John. Though perhaps I might have liked the production to delve a little deeper into the gender politics raised by the casting, I come away with the impression that this is a theatre that truly understands its audience. This jaunty production proves that gender experimental Shakespeare doesn’t have to take itself too seriously.
Much Ado About Nothing is playing at the Watford Palace Theatre until 27 October. For more information and tickets, click here.