This warm and enchanting take on Much Ado About Nothing takes us to a Downtonian world of turrets and panelling and the First World War is lurking – men in uniform and women working as nurses. The central love story between Shakespeare’s most reluctant loves – Beatrice (Lisa Dillon) and Benedick (Edward Bennett) – shines through cheerfully. Requiring a slightly trickier suspension of disbelief, given the early Twentieth Century setting, is the Hero (Rebecca Collingwood) and Claudio (Tunji Kasim) story. Why on earth would she take him back after he jilts her so cruelly at the altar?
Edward Bennett’s performance as Benedick is a masterclass in comic acting. He flirts with the audience, climbs a Christmas tree and tiptoes hilariously. And yet there’s a serious side to his character and Bennett ensures that we see all Benedick’s complexity as he finally acknowledges his love for Beatrice and recognises that Hero’s situation is no joke and that he must help. Collingwood’s Beatrice is elegantly sparky and eventually distressed and their scenes together are finely nuanced.
From amongst an pretty strong cast I’d also pick out Steven Pacey whose Leonato is decent, reasonable – and very moving when he weeps. And Nick Haverson has enormous fun with Dogberry, master of the malapropism two centuries before the term was invented. Haverson shakes, gibbers and fulminates. The trial scene is squeezed so hard for humour that by the end of it we’re almost in a pantomime slosh scene. There’s a lot of laughter at Dogberry’s expense but we’re left at his final exit, aware that he is both pitiful and ill so we feel uncomfortable – the ambivalence is nicely managed.
Bob Broad and his eight-piece band, meanwhile provide splendidly atmospheric background music (by Nigel Hess) as well as occasional song and dance accompaniment. Simon Higlett’s set, inspired by Charlecote Park, near Stratford, takes us effortlessly between scenes and from cosy interiors to drafty exteriors with a sliding inner platform – effectively a moveable stage within a stage. A word of praise for the beautiful clothes too (costume supervisor: Karen Large). All the dresses are stunning – as colourful as a tube of wine gums and with pretty flowing skirts.
This enjoyable play is half of a double bill revived now in London having begun life in Stratford two years ago. The other half is Love’s Labours Lost (of which more next week) with the same cast. One of the links is the possibility that “Love’s Labours Won” could have been an alternative title for Much Ado.