With any production of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” there is a certain set of expectations regarding the experience. The battle-of-the-sexes plotline, witty well-written gender-based barbs, the entrance of the fool, and so forth. The play is almost like comfort food, as we know what we’re getting into when we settle into it. So, when the mariachi-like music begins and sombrero donned Mexicans are seen traveling cross country on top of freight train car while girls in flowery cotton dresses dance and pray in Spanish at religious shrines, we know we’re in for a ride. In fact, it’s this type of way out of the box imagination that sets this production so far apart from anything before it, making this production one of the most unique experiences in recent memory.
Set circa 1910 during the first wave of the Mexican Revolution, the play opens with women dressed in china poblanas adorned with bandoliers who dance traditionally and flirt while grizzled mustachioed men recently returned from war fashioned with pistolas and swords leer. Impressive production values, despite the Globe’s limitations, allow the audience to be brusquely immersed and pleasantly transported to a most unanticipated time period, but initial questions arise as to what ends this intention brings. Given that the first few minutes are dialogue-free so as to establish time and tone, the production seems to groaningly hint at the idea of some sort of Trumpian heavy-handed lesson in international politics and rhetoric, but once the script kicks in and British accents return, the audience is reminded that at heart, this play is a comedic love story of comeuppance and attrition that is never not fun despite the locale.
Now, that’s not to say that director Matthew Dunster doesn’t make strong cultural observations regarding class, gender, and politics. In fact, because of this cultural displacement, the play is able to tackle these topics from a variety of novel and offbeat directions more so than a traditional approach would have allowed. It’s just that Dunster’s classroom diatribes are so sugar-coated with charm that they now allow for easy administering and smooth digesting, while designer Anna Fleischle’s stunningly dye-soaked regional delights make the production a sumptuous feast for the eyes.
With this much inspiration and artistry going into the concept and look, the cast never need elevate the production so much as compliment it in creativity. So, Beatriz Romilly and Matthew Needham, as Beatrice and Benedick, respectively, bring a timely ferociousness to the material, making their war as fresh today as it was a hundred (or even four hundred) years ago. Needham’s wry comedic timing and war-weary physical presence establish Benedick with a much more self-important braggadocio than Branagh and Tennent have previously. Where others have made Benedick dismissive and unworthy of love, there is weight to Needham’s words, as the grime and sweat of the Mexican landscape hangs on him like a burdened past. Romilly’s Beatrice feels much more independent than past depictions, as she fights more forcibly than most at the notion of falling for Benedick, balking at his advances at every turn. She’s a resolute, 21st century woman wrapped in south of the border, pre-suffragette cultural traditions, and she’s not going down easily. Even as she slowly warms to Benedick’s romantic entanglements, she can’t help but throw up in her mouth a little.
The supporting cast is beyond capable, melting into the cultural atmosphere appropriately but never disappearing. Steve John Shepherd’s Don Pedro sports a Cheshire cat smile that grants him a Puckish mischievousness offset only by his comic similarity to “The Three Amigos” El Guapo. With Hero, where many productions and actresses represent her as the naïve cardboard cutout that the text might suggest, Anya Chalotra’s approach shows a greater backbone than usual, making Hero more than the manipulated halfwit we’ve all come to know and loathe. And Martin Marquez’s Leonato, with his cane-augmented walk and eyepatch, brings a war-torn fatigue, so that when learning of his daughter’s seeming indiscretion and thus calls for his own death, he is a man ready to fall on his own sword, actions brought on by a world that has already beaten him down sufficiently enough.
With such an endearing group of actors, the production is able to play fast and loose with the Bard’s words, as genders are swapped for a handful of minor characters (Don Juan is now Don Juana), culturally appropriate phrases and words are added (“I can find out no rhyme for…señorita, but healthy eater; very ominous endings”), Margaret is given a motivation resulting from a classicist tone via Hero, and Dog Berry is now a non-Spanish speaking Hollywood film director. With such a unique vision from Dunster and company, the audience is more than game and ultimately accepting of these changes. Most notable was just how many much-deserved potshots were aimed at the Americans, which as one, allowed for an even greater appreciation and much heartier guffaws than my surrounding neighbors from across the pond. From one comic farce to another, the ribbing was much appreciated.
Yet, despite the vast amount it all does well, the production has its missteps. The first half of the play (comprised of the first three acts, mostly) is such a wild, breathless dash to the wedding, that by the time the intermission is over and we return to the action, some air is let out of the excitement as we catch our breath. As it is now structured, the second half begins with the appearance of Dog Berry, and the play abruptly shifts towards a screwball tone that is somewhat jarring at times. Choosing to have Dog Berry as an American film director is clever, and attributing his malapropisms to poor translation is hysterical, yet the comedy with Dog Berry is too broad, and for as many arrows as it releases, although many riotously hit their targets, too many fly wildly off into the upper balcony (as evidenced by the smattering of enthusiastic applause for actor Ewan Wardrop – who actually nails American entitlement quite well). Yes, Dogberry is traditionally a buffoon, but the over-the-top shenanigans hint at a mistrust of the audience’s better sensibilities to see him as such. Given the fact that the production seems to admirably go all in on its commitment to authentic culture and time period, one wishes that it not wander towards archetypal tropes (like when the villainous Don Juana swaggers in, dressed all in black). The thought is, if the show can already keep the audience beyond the first five minutes, then a little evenhanded restraint and audience faith wouldn’t be unfavorable.
Additionally, the play’s decision to delete a key scene between Margaret and Borachio becomes a grievous error in judgement, as the action of their deception is left up to exposition. Resultedly, theatergoers unfamiliar with the play are left somewhat bewildered as to why Claudio rejects Hero. Being that the actor playing Claudio plays said rejection scene so straight-faced in the beginning, with insults rolling off his tongue so lovingly they seem as if a joke, we too are just as duped and confused as Hero when he unknits his soul to the apparent rotten orange that she’s become. Without the scene of Claudio being misled into thinking his Hero is unfaithful, it’s tough to not only buy into his emotional turn, but also for the uninitiated to follow the plot.
However, the overall lavishness of design and singularity of vision more than make up for these issues, especially as the play culminates in spirited traditional Hispanic dancing, inviting the audience to clap along and restore amends. In fact, there is such a joy in their step that it’s as if, unable to contain their enthusiasm for the production any further, the actors spontaneously and inescapably break out into merriment, and the audience thus concedes and deservedly celebrates along, as we know we’ve just experienced something special. Defying expectations, Dunster has achieved a monumental task in bringing the play to us with a place and people that comfortably wear it all like a well-tailored charro when it could have felt forced on us like borrowed robes. Not to be missed, it’s certain you’ll never see another production like this one.
“Much Ado About Nothing” is playing at Shakespeare's Globe theater in London until October 15