“The wonderful thing about the music hall”, Wilton‘s Music Hall board member Dr. John Gayner told me as we took neighbouring seats on press night, “is that for 150 years it has always given joy to everyone that enters it”. If tonight’s performance is anything to go by, Gayner can rest easy that that legacy endures.
One of the bard’s best loved comedies, Much Ado About Nothing is the love story of the sweet and naive Claudio (Imran Momen) and Hero (Hannah Bristow) alongside that of the feistier and more complex Benedick (Geoffrey Lumb) and Beatrice (Dorothea Myer-Bennett). Both Benedick and Claudio are members of the victorious army of Don Pedro (Zachary Powell), whose brother (or in this production, sister) Don Jon (Georgia Frost) is the cunning, evil-for-evil’s-sake antagonist.
The relationship between Benedick and Beatrice is a crucial thing to get right here, as these two share the lines with the most colour and wit. Happily, this production does them justice, with a performance by Lumb in particular that marvels with its faultless transition between embodying charming bravado, knightly seriousness, or playing the abashed fool. All characters engage in a flamboyant hamming up of comic moments, which at times veers a little too far on the side of pantomime, but nevertheless triggers genuine hilarity. There is a sense that this is a company that both loves the material they are working with and the people they are working alongside, with joyous results that the audience feels privileged to share in.
Director Elizabeth Freestone sets her production in an unspecified modern-day context, with her priority simply seeming to embellish Shakespeare’s original with as much fun as possible. This largely works: the drinks are always flowing, characters text each other lines on smartphones, and the masquerade ball sees attendees dress up as superheroes. We are endeared to them by their cheap outfits, their awkward dancing, and the sweaty and dishevelled state they are left in by the end of the night.
Freestone allows for the action to pause between certain lines and scenes, to better immerse the audience in the Elizabethan action and language. Sure, this might have contributed to the play’s rather lengthy three-hour run-time, but the melodramatic skits performed by the cast in response to certain actions, as well as the emphatic pronunciation of some of the more intricate renaissance comedic lines, all help to ensure the audience is always on board with the comedy. This measured, spacious direction also means that when the tone shifts to tragedy in the second half, it does not feel like a shock, but is instead as natural as is probably possible in what is sometimes a rather imbalanced play.
Designer Jean Chan creates a bright and sun-kissed abode in amongst the preserved shabby grandeur of Wilton’s. Bright orange, sky blue and a vibrant green appear in character’s costumes, in the design of the furniture, and in the bunting which Hero and her family hang up around the stage in anticipation of the visiting soldiers. All elements work together to really suggest a hospitable old Italian famiglia in a palazzo somewhere on the sleepy Sicilian coast.
In an essentially fun and heartfelt production, there is a seamless blend of the vibrant modern with the poetic old, with neither aspect ever really detracting from the other.
Much Ado About Nothing is playing at Wilton’s Music Hall until 23 Nov 2019. For more information and tickets, see the Wilton’s Music Hall website.