With last year’s award-winning Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare BASH’d set itself a high standard by which to be judged. Does their Much Ado pass muster? Well, mostly.
Once again taking over the somewhat cramped premises of the Victory Café, permitting the audience to get up for a beer at any point (albeit at the risk of being run over by a horde of charging actors meeting their cue), Shakespeare Bash’d was again working with its basic precepts: limited props, rapid-fire delivery of lines, plentiful physical comedy, and a wealth of tiny details that keep the audience constantly on the lookout for more. In this intimate space (and my, Dogberry certainly did get intimate on occasion), there’s an immediacy to the performance that propels it forward – at times too much. The Fringe’s limiting of performances to 90 minutes does the company a disservice, forcing it to rush. Even an extra ten minutes would have allowed for a much more balanced evening.
Though still mostly a piece of fluff, Much Ado is a deeper, darker play than Shrew; despite the light touch, it concerns slander, pride, revenge, rage and potential death, as well as the jealous undertows of love, and has in Claudio one of Shakespeare’s greatest jackasses. It is these darker elements that take time to develop, and so it is perhaps unsurprising that they are much of what’s lost. The need to get things over with leaves the serious aspects aside; thus Borachio’s (Andrew Gaboury) confession to Don Pedro lacks any sense of remorse – we got no sense of why he is confessing, beyond having been caught, why he suddenly feels so bad for Hero. Likewise the scene at Hero’s tomb is curtailed and quickly passed over so that Don Pedro and Claudio came off as being only more insensitive that they already are.
Yet these are minor quibbles. On the whole this production is a truly enjoyable evening at the theatre, and succeeds marvellously at getting the plot across. The more one attends Shakespeare plays, the more one learns to recognise the laughter and exclamations of audience members who don’t know the story already, and such exclamations were present aplenty – the somewhat nervous laughter that followed ‘Kill Claudio’ is a prime example. From Jamie Johnson’s jolly and convivial Leonato, greeting audience members as they come in and forever bursting into song, to Julia Nish-Lapidus’s exquisitely irritating voice as the Dogberry-besotted Verges, the characterisations are full of details that enable the cast to come together as a group. Shakespeare BASH’d is very much an ensemble company, and that’s what makes their productions so enjoyable.
Set at the end of the Second World War, with the returning soldiers apparently on their way back from the sands of El Alamein and the Watch held by women in overalls wearing the ‘We Can Do It’ Girl’s turban, the production does not overemphasise this setting. In fact this is one of its minor disappointments: the possibilities opened up by this choice of era (in part influenced by the Victory Café’s decor) are mostly left aside. Just as an instance, it is not especially clear why Don John (Jesse Nerenberg) was being such a villain; the fact he has betrayed his brother is quickly glossed over. In part this is the fault of the play; Don John is a far better example of ‘motiveless malignancy’ than Iago.
But what was done was superb. General Monty lookalike David Ross provides a fine turn as Don Pedro, offering him more depth than usual, with a strong suggestion that his proposal to marry Beatrice is not feigned. The worried laughter with which she greets this proposal offers them both a way out, but it makes Benedick’s mocking ‘Get thee a wife’ in the final lines rather more pointed than it often is. Likewise, Don Pedro’s enthusiasm for the idea of wooing Hero in disguise is strong enough that Claudio’s doubts as to the prince’s intentions become at least slightly logical. Mostly, however, Ross provides a fine and credible portrayal of a soldier on leave, able to slough off discipline for a time and perhaps explaining the extent of his lack of care after Hero’s apparent death. Here too there seemed the hint of a missed opportunity: aside from Don John’s evil nature, one of the greatest problems in this play is the sheer extent of Don Pedro and Claudio’s casual brushing off of what they’ve done to Leonato’s family, particularly in modern dress productions. The suggestion that, returning from the wars, they might be suffering from some form of PTSD would go a long way in explaining some of their behavior.
To be fair, Claudio (Kyle Purcell) is arguably the most difficult role in the play: he does nothing admirable and yet gets a happy ending, and it has to be assumed that the audience is meant to sympathise with him. All sorts of excuses have been advanced for him, for overdeveloped pride to extreme youth, but few of them ever fully succeed in making us see him as anything but a cad. Purcell’s low-key performance fails to account for the rapidity of Claudio’s shifts in emotion from love to jealousy and hate back to love; in fact the two states seem rather similar in him. This isn’t helped by the rushed feeling of the last scenes or the cuts in the scene at the tomb, which leave no time for any depth to be developed in the character. The final effect is even greater disappointment than usual at Hero not slapping him in the final scene. Much of this is made up for, however, by the magnificence of Purcell’s silent petulance as Beatrice literally pushes him the length of the café to be betrothed to Hero in the first place. His essential childishness is for once on wondrous display.
Much Ado, of course, lives or dies by its Beatrice and Benedick, and here the performance is well-served. Company founder James Wallis, who was last year’s Petruchio, is again a loud-mouthed misogynist, whipping out his wit on all occasions and solid in his opinions, at least until his startling volte-face when the possibility of Beatrice loving him comes out. The scene in which he philosophises his way out of his previous opinions is a high point of the evening, deservedly rewarded by a round of applause. Here too there is one of those details that makes the company’s productions so much fun: Beatrice, summoned to bring him in to supper, appears wearing a party hat and carrying one for him. She places it on his head, with the wonderful effect that as Benedick attempts to talk his way out of accusations of hypocrisy, he is wearing a dunce cap. Wallis is also excellent at demonstrating Benedick’s ability to be serious when he challenges Claudio to a duel. It is clear that however conflicted he may have been at first, he has taken Beatrice and Hero’s cause to heart, and that Don Pedro and Claudio’s light-hearted refusal to take the matter seriously offends him. His attempts to hide among the audience during the gulling scene are another high point, whether it’s climbing halfway up the wall or placing a newspaper over his head in an attempt to remain hidden. Equally hilarious is his constant forgetting of his Scottish accent during the masked ball.
Luckily, there is excellent chemistry between Wallis and Amelia Sargisson’s Beatrice. The be-trousered Sargisson is without a doubt one of the high points of the evening in her every scene, as much for her ability to get across the thrust of a jest even if there’s not necessarily time for the mind to unpack it, as for the physical comedy (pushing Claudio to the front, swooning in hiding over Ursula’s praise of Benedick) – not to mention the sheer display of technique in the second half of the church scene, when she is able to make every word distinct and perfectly comprehensible even through her throat-tearing tears of rage. ‘Kill Claudio’ (which is probably the line by which every Beatrice must be judged) is perfectly delivered, Sargisson succeeding in changing the temperature in the room even before she speaks the words.
As Hero, Elisabeth Lagerlöf presents a charming, kind, rather mindless Hero, more or less exactly what one expects, who clearly has a pre-existing crush on Claudio from before the play begins. She is well-matched with Ellen Hurley’s Margaret and Julia Nish-Lapidus’s Ursula, the three of them together forming a formidable front against Beatrice. Lagerlöf and Hurley are also the Watch(women) who arrest Borachio and Conrad; it is a rather nice touch to have the instruments of his doom be Margaret and Hero in another guise.
Gaboury’s sloshed, foppish Borachio is great fun, though as mentioned his speech of repentance seems unexplained. The fact that he acts out of amusement and for gain comes across particularly well. Andrew Anthony, tripling as Balthazar, Conrad and Friar Francis, gives both musical accompaniment and some fascinating changes in hairdo between his characters. Despite the lack of explanation for his actions, Nerenberg is a fine Don John – the little smile every time he leaves the stage having advanced his plan another step is particularly fine.
And then there’s Brenhan McKibben as the Sexton and as Antonio, keeping things from getting too serious when the two old men attempt to challenge Don Pedro and Claudio. Ripping off his shirt and assuming outlandish boxing poses, McKibben makes the pair’s refusal to fight him easily comprehensible. He makes the most of his scenes, such as with the charming detail of his placing his glasses over his mask during the ball, and his exasperation with the Watch as the Sexton, when he is faced with Milan Malisic’s Dogberry.
Malisic is an unabashed scene-stealer, as he showed last year, but more with his physical comedy than with his delivery. His malapropisms are often lost, as much in the speed of his speech as in the laughter of the audience. Partly, of course, this is due to one of the great decisions that face actors of this role, whether to underline Dogberry’s mistakes or let them pass by. Malisic opts for the latter, replacing them with constant innuendo (yes, he even makes a sexton joke) and flirting with every woman on and off stage, keeping Verges, who clearly has more than a little bit of a pash for him, clearly under his spell despite his attempts to run off from her. And then there’s his whip. Which, just in case its phallic symbolism wasn’t clear enough, he often keeps safe down the front of his pants.
All in all, I was less blown away by this production than I was by last year’s; but perhaps my standards are simply too high. The audience was charmed and the evening thoroughly enjoyable. Still, in November Shakespeare BASH’d will present Romeo and Juliet. I will be intrigued to see what they can do when liberated from the tyranny of the clock.