The program accompanying Maria Aberg’s production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing sets the intellectual mood for the performance. Its main body consists of three articles. The first article ‘Stranger in the House’ by Julie Summers describes life in Britain after the Second World War. Women (wives, girlfriends and mothers) are highlighted for their roles in helping soldiers settle back into civilian and family life. During the war, however, some young women enjoyed a hedonistic lifestyle created by a patriarchal free society, especially when the American GI’s landed on British soil. Therefore, post-war Britain became blighted by divorce and unwanted pregnancies. The second article ‘An Age of Uncertainty’ by Scott Ferguson marks the birth of Government state surveillance developed from spying in the Second World War. An epidemic of phone tapping, miniaturised bugging devices hidden in offices and homes and intercepted mail plagued a suspicious world divided by conflict. In ‘Reading Between [Blurred] Lines: Staging Shakespeare’s Women Today’, Benjamin Fowler examines a subtle undermining of patriarchal power in Much Ado About Nothing. What is particularly interesting is Fowler’s discussion of Innogen who is Hero’s mother, and Leonata’s wife, as the epitome of the silent female. Her mysterious appearance as the stage direction Innogen his wife on only two occasions (the beginning of acts 1 & 2) in the Quarto and Folio led to her deletion in 1733 by Lewis Theobald. She has rarely been seen since.
It is no surprise, then, that Aberg begins Much Ado About Nothing in
a post-war Messina of 1945. It is a grey drab rationed world that leans towards a tragic reading of the play. Aberg brings to mind the infamous line from Hamlet (1601) ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’ (I.iv.90) or, in this case, Messina. Along with the post-war setting, Aberg’s other master stroke is to make Leonata a woman. Within the first five minutes of the production, Aberg deftly accentuates the play’s many oppositions: male/female,war/peace, work/leisure, shrew/silence, comedy/tragedy, silliness/seriousness. It begins by introducing the female Leonata and the shrewish Beatrice both dressed in dreary brown garb. Beatrice’s rebellious nature is shown by her smoking a cigarette (presumably a black market luxury in post-war Europe) and her tight trousers that are both alluring and a barrier to male passion. On the other hand, Leonata’s seniority is implied by her military style long dress. Also, by making Leonata female, the returning soldiers Don Pedro, Don John, Benedick, Claudio, Balthasar, Conrade and Borachio find a grey drab world populated by women.
What becomes apparent is that Leonata is not a powerful matriarch or a queen-like figure. The more serious matters are dealt with by her brother Antonio and Friar Francis. She is more a brothel madam overseeing the joyful mixing of the boys and girls, and she couples nicely with Don Pedro herself to create a pleasing symmetry with her seemingly already partnered daughter and niece. Leonata’s lightweight role is further highlighted when she introduces the ‘merry war’ (I.i.58) between Benedick and Beatrice (played wonderfully by Paul Ready and Ellie Piercy). Beatrice’s sharp tongue never ceases to delight and Piercy revels in the linguistic sparring, while Ready’s Benedick looks suitably awed. Though, Becci Gemmell is excellent as Hero. When first with Claudio, Gemmell is amazingly shy, awkward, and diffident in a dowdy dress. With her black rimmed glasses, Gemmell as Hero is the archetypal early modern male fantasy as the chaste silent female. Even in modern thinking, she is the allusive girl-next-door.
With the war over and the men and women reacquainted, the production moves into a 1950’s jazz era. The stage comes alive with colour – ribbons, dresses, music, singing, dancing and oversized head-masks. The defamiliarising effect of the large masks in an otherwise celebratory mood again hints at dark undertones, and perhaps serves as a comment on a hedonistic society.
The question underlying Shakespeare’s play and what Aberg appears to emphasise is: Does Messina create its tragedy by being overly playful? Is the ‘merry war’ simply too merry? The instigator of all the trouble is, of course, the bastard Don John who sets out to disrupt the marriage between Claudio and Hero. Unlike the other Shakespeare villain’s Edmund and Iago who are responsible for destroying a whole society, Don John’s scheming seems mild in comparison. In Aberg’s post 1945 production where Don John is always dressed in military garb, it occurs to me that Don John is not a ‘plain-dealing villain’ (I.iii.29-30) as he describes himself. He appears to be a soldier who is struggling to adapt to civilian life after experiencing the conflict and upheaval of fighting a bloody war. More significantly, he has no female partner to help him adjust to domestic life.
Much of the comedy before the interval is provided by the overhearing scenes involving Beatrice and Benedick that introduces the play to the perils of spying/surveillance. Benedick is the first to be tricked into believing Beatrice is madly in love with him when he overhears a staged conversation between Don Pedro, Claudio and Leonata. Rather than hiding behind scenery, Ready as Benedick cleverly utilises the audience by crouching amongst them. Also, instead of being a static listener, he moves surreptitiously around the stage perimeter and rolls across the floor. Ready’s shadowy movements and attempts to shrink his body size are a joy to watch. He makes an important comic scene far more entertaining than if he had adhered to the play’s stage directions. Beatrice is similarly tricked when she overhears a conversation between Ursula and Hero stating that Benedick is madly in love with her. The symmetry between the two overhearing scenes is made clearer by Piercy as Beatrice aping Benedick’s fluid movements around the stage perimeter. Again, she is entertaining to watch but Piercy adds a touch of vulnerability to the shrewish Beatrice with the notion that a man could love her.
The performance darkens perceptibly when Don John informs Claudio that Hero is not as chaste as she seems, and he will no longer wish to marry such a wanton when he knows what he knows. Don John then challenges Claudio to spy on who he thinks is Hero in her chamber window flirting with another man. Following this disturbing turn of events, Dogberry and Verges as the neighbourhood watch appear. What is immediately striking is that Dogberry and Verges are women played admirally by Sandy Foster and Beverly Rudd. Like Leonata, the gender transformation of Dogberry and Verges appears to promote a matriarchal utopian society. Yet this matriarchal power is again diluted by Dogberry and Verges being a bungling version of the 1970’s female detectives Cagney and Lacey. The problem I have with making Dogberry and Verges a comic duo is that they appear at an awkward moment in the play. Much of the play’s comedy provided by Benedick and Beatrice is usurped by Don John’s dark scheming. In fact, Dogberry’s comic effect in Shakespeare’s play also has serious undertones. His, or in this case her, malapropisms indicates how language and signs can be easily misinterpreted, a recurrent theme in Much Ado About Nothing. Therefore, I think that making Dogberry and Verges comical does not sit well with the play’s unfolding tragic events. Though Verges helmet with its ear-like radars emphasises the theme of overhearing/surveillance.
After the interval, the stage is set for the wedding between Hero and Claudio. The ensuing relationship breakdown is handled well by Kearns and Gemmell. The bitter exchange becomes a skewed version of Benedick’s and Beatrice’s ‘merry war’. Gemmell’s piercing scream and subsequent collapse plunge the production into a Lynchian nightmare. Even the stage lights are dimmed.
Gemmell comes into her own as she busily sets about clearing her name and reclaiming the man she loves. She is no longer a shy diffident creature but a strong independent woman. Piercy also makes Beatrice melancholic. Though the strength of her performance as a loveable character, and the on-stage chemistry between Ready and herself, is clearly illustrated when the audience laugh after she tells Benedick to ‘Kill Claudio’ (IV.i.288). A moment of pure comic relief for a production swamped by sudden fast-moving drama.
The most moving and horrifying moment in the production is Kearns’ grief-stricken Claudio. Believing Hero is dead, he visits her grave in full modern military uniform clutching flowers. Without speaking, he visibly crumbles and then is overcome by rage as he sets about tearing up planks from the stage. His rage is not wasted as he helps transform the stage into a blossoming garden bursting with colour for the final resolution. A neat and satisfying melting of tragedy into Shakespearean comedy. All the cast are barefoot and dressed simply in light clothing as Claudio is reunited with a resurrected Hero, and Benedick and Beatrice sort of admit their love for each other. Joy is restored to Messina, and Aberg’s version of Much Ado About Nothing is one I will never forget.
Ferguson, Scott. ‘An Age of Uncertainty’. Program for Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare. Manchester: Royal Exchange Theatre, 2014. 7.
Fowler, Benjamin. ‘Reading Between [Blurred] Lines: Staging Shakespeare’s Women Today’. Program for Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare. Manchester: Royal Exchange Theatre, 2014. 8-9.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. 1601. Ed. Harold Jenkins. London: The Arden Shakespeare, 2003.
—. Much Ado About Nothing. 1598. Ed. Claire McEachern. London: The Arden Shakespeare, 2006.
Summers, Julie. ‘Stranger in the House’. Program for Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare. Manchester: Royal Exchange Theatre, 2014. 4-6.