The Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds is, according to its website, “the only surviving example of a Regency theatre in [England].” Renovated in 2007, the theatre auditorium is an intimate space. Watching Much Ado About Nothing, directed by the Theatre Royal’s Associate Director Abigail Anderson, is a discovery of the strange and delightful. We are a 2011 audience, with 2011 audience expectations, sitting in a c1819 playhouse designed for c1819 theatre-going conventions, watching a c1598 play created for a c1598 audience. That these juxtapositions work so well is a testament to the space, Shakespeare’s text, and Anderson’s solid direction.
The theatre’s intimacy promotes a close connection to and among the audience. As Anderson perceptively points out in a program note: “The design of the auditorium puts you on stage with the actors and makes you equally important. You can watch other people watch the play as easily as you can watch the actors.” Cast members hold eye contact and are not afraid of engaging the audience directly. Notably, when Beatrice (Polly Lister) overhears Margaret (Suzanne Ahmet) and Hero (Ellie Kirk) discussing Benedick’s (Nicholas Tizzard) supposed love sickness, she breaks the fourth wall by entering the lower seating area. Flabbergasted by what she is hearing, she finds an empty seat in the stalls and sits down, giving looks of quizzical amazement to the audience member sitting next to her.
As Beatrice, Lister is bursting with energy. She overworks a hands-on-hips posture, but the gesture is indicative of a character full of confidence. In her plea with Benedick, famously, to “kill Claudio” Lister plays levels excellently, and when Benedick refuses, she switches from emotional openness to a cold exterior with skill. Tizzard’s Benedick is much of what one hopes for in a Benedick. His exchanges with Beatrice crackle, and he inhabits his soldier’s role with a mix of bravado and good cheer. In his “overhearing” scene, he works the physical comedy, hiding behind flats and become a garden statue.
The rest of the cast is strong, and there is an enlightening performance from Theatre Royal regular John Webb as Hero’s father, Leonato. He is feisty and at times terrifying, especially in his denunciation of Hero. And in challenging Claudio (Ben Deery) to a duel—a scene normally played for laughs—we sense Webb’s Leonato really could do some harm. James Wallace’s Don John is played straightforwardly evil, though we experience some character coloration when he awkwardly pats Borachio (Nick Underwood) on the shoulder, as if unaware of and uncomfortable with the niceties of social interaction. Michael Onslow’s stunning, deep voice gives his Don Pedro a taciturn and commanding quality, and more so than other productions, makes believable the Don John/Don Pedro relationship.
Libby Watson’s set design involves movable panels. The color palate is sandy tones and burnt oranges. Other than a few potted flowers (one of which Tizzard clutches for comfort as Benedick decides to requite Beatrice’s love) very few set props appear on stage. Mia Flodquist costumes the soldiers in dark blue and red-lined regimental uniforms. Don John wears the same cut, but in a stand-out dark green. The costumes move the play up about 200 years, and the time period feels appropriate.
Much Ado About Nothing at the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds is a well-acted, solid production. It presents the text clearly, and it shines with a sunny confidence, helped with strong performances from its protagonists.