A Review by student Calum Conner-Jones.
This adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing (directed by Matthew Dunster) is a beautiful display of exuberance, culture and spirit. With more ammunition and strums of a guitar than a Texan birthday party we are taken from the customary 16th-century Messina and relocated to Mexico amid revolution in 1910. Where los soldados y las soldaderas (male/female soldiers) are locked and loaded for love – and war. The women of the play rival any man by being crack shots with cracking wits.
It is not plomo (lead) that does the most damage as Cupid’s arrows strike the centre of Beatrice’s (Beatriz Romilly) and Benedick’s (Matthew Needham) fiery and passionate relationship. The pair fire out barrages of insults in Chuckle Brother’s “to me, to you” style exchanges, with Beatrice typically getting in the last word. A woman with an attitude leaning more towards feisty than fiesta.
Gender roles are forgotten, as this is a revolution where women and men fought side by side, allowing for an effective gender swap. Don Pedro’s (Steve John Shepherd) malicious, illegitimate, bastard brother Don Juan becomes his twisted sister Juana (Jo Dockery). This swap allows the characters to explore gender politics. As Director Matthew Dunster explains in an interview with Danielle Pearson. “…it shifts the politics of their relationship as siblings. Is she the eldest, but doesn’t stand to inherit by virtue of her gender?… gives validity to her anger and her frustration, firstly with her brother, and then with the wider society?” This theme endures even more in Don Juan’s speech, in which he says, “I must be sad when I have cause and smile at no man’s jests, eat when I have stomach and wait for no man’s leisure…” When a woman delivers this line, it becomes revolutionary, inspiring and political. This really fits in well with the insurrectionary setting in which the play is set.
Anya Chalotra is a bold, beautiful and badass Hero, quickly turning around to blast three cans off the top of the old freight train (work by set designer Anna Fleischle), and the live reworking of PJ Harvey’s The Desperate Kingdom of Love is woven throughout the Claudio/Hero subplot to invoke an emotional reaction from the audience. The love story between Benedick and Beatrice is traditionally the important romance in this play, as it is always the make/break plotline in these adaptations. It is necessary to have fiery clashes between the two but also the slow character development as they whittle each other down to their soft core. It must be said that this play does it sublimely as Beatrice scathingly tells Benedick “you always end too soon”, slowly but surely these venomous remarks lose their toxicity and both cobras shed their thick skin and embrace each other in a loving kiss.
You cannot write a review about this play without mentioning the fabulous work of costume designers Pauline Cheney, Ashleigh Cherry, Patricia Farmer, Becky Graham and Astrid Schultz. The use of mechanical stilts and wire hose heads was extremely innovative and fun. In addition, the era in which it is set allows the female costumes to excel as Dunster says in the interview, “I saw an image of the Soldaderas (female soldiers) in their white Edwardian dresses. We recognise that shape… familiar connotations for us, yet these women also had belts of bullets around their chests, and guns and swords on their hips. I was drawn to that contrast, and it revealed to me a way to explore Much Ado with a gender parity that didn’t feel bolted on.” It is also a very funny theme to change the constable Dogberry into a hilariously ignorant US film director, with the only wall built between the US and Mexico being the language barrier. Ewan Wardrop’s performance provides hilarity and a realistic political view on the stereotypical American.
To conclude, the play is a wonderful melting pot of humour, romance, culture and political statements. A truly flawless play in every aspect. It very much must be said that it is truly heartwarming to see the actors and actresses at the end requesting donations for those caught in the devastating 7.1-magnitude earthquake that left 225 dead. A lot of help and support is needed in Latin America now as it is suffering at the cruel hands of nature and rampant poverty. This link will take you to a website in which you can donate to the same charity that we donated to on the night of the show. Thank you.