Much Ado About Nothing ponders the concept of redemption—can Beatrice and Benedict’s tumultuous history and Hero’s public denunciation at the hands of Claudio be redeemed by the workings of fate and time? Even if they are, Shakespeare’s play leaves an unsettled feeling with the audience unsure if the seeming-happy ending can account for the touchings of true tragedy and betrayal that compose the bulk of the play—Hero 'dies,' after all. Such a question of redemption applies to the performance of Ado by Trifle Productions, produced by Shakespeare on Tap, which presents Shakespeare in pub gardens and outdoor venues. Sharon Willems’ direction breaks the play, unusually, into three sections, giving two intervals for the audience to wander over to the bar for another pint (not the best dramatic choice, but certainly a shrewd business move). In short: Part I of this production should be consigned to the 'dark backward and abysm of time.' Parts II and III are, respectively, stellar and solid, and leave one wondering if they can, in the words of St Paul, 'redeem the time.'
The production begins innocuously enough with violin and guitar music provided by Luca Kocsmarszky and Joseph Browder, set against the background of the Rose and Crown Pub’s garden—an enshrubbed space of patio furniture and picnic tables with the light clanking of glasses audible in the background. But performances quickly fall apart as the principals enter. At best bland, at worst wooden acting persists through the next sixty minutes from the main members of the cast (Susan Moisan’s Beatrice excepted—she is the savior of Part I, a diamond in a very rough rough). Jonathan Plummer as Benedick certainly has talent, but his overly morose handling of what should be lighter speeches gives the impression that he wandered into the wrong play (from Hamlet, perhaps). And then there’s Padraig Breathnach’s Don John, who is so stereotypically ‘evil villain’ as to carry a walking stick (which he licks at one point, incidentally) and wear a black dinner jacket—a long, menacing laugh would not be out of place. The performance is so over-the-top as to be a caricature of a caricature (think Snidely Whiplash doing Snidely Whiplash); it is immensely engaging to behold, but only because it is such a train wreck. Uninventive and overly-busy staging (Don Pedro, Claudio, and Leonato kick around a soccer/football) completely wastes the two scenes in which Beatrice and Benedick are tricked into believing the other is in love with him/her. On the whole, Part I suffers from a severe lack of joy and creative energy, demonstrating a flaccid and spiritless engagement with the text.
But then something magical occurs—the cast emerges from the interval dressed in trench coats and dark shades, serving as 'the watch,' led by a transformed—and hilarious—Breathnach as Dogberry the Constable. A slight facial tic and a whistle serve his turn, providing several bouts of laughter which are so conspicuously absent from Part I. The change is a harbinger of a significantly improved Part II (is this the same cast?) in which the production hits a strong point in the darker wedding/denunciation scene. For starters, Freya Finnerty as Hero finally has a chance to be more than an accessory to the plot, and she is well-cast (and well-played) in her role. Simon Nicholas as Leonato connects in his torn desires to both protect his daughter and rebuke her. Plummer’s more earnest style now fits with the play’s change in tone and allows him to shine in his subsequent exchanges with Beatrice and his challenge to Claudio. And speaking of Beatrice: Moisan is utterly absorbing, clearly a gifted actress, who hits a pitch-perfect vengeful yearning to "eat [Claudio’s] heart in the marketplace," shading Beatrice’s grace and wit with complexity and skill.
A few technical glitches affect the performance, notably in the use of microphones positioned at the front of the stage, which are subjected to the effects of the ubiquitous London rain shower, creating noticeable popping sounds. The microphones also cause certain actors to be heard over others. The stage itself is a simple affair, the shrubbery decorated with fairy lights, and the costumes a hodge-podge of modern day outfits, with the trench coats and shades serving as the most unifying pieces.
Redemption is a mysterious process, but a beautiful one when it occurs. For Trifle’s production of Much Ado About Nothing, its initial part creates doubt, but the exceptional character of its remaining sections prove to outweigh its faults.