Much Ado About Nothing
by William Shakespeare
Theatre UNB and The NotaBle Acts Theatre Company
The Garrison District, June 2006
We tend to forget that Shakespeare wrote his plays as what we now think of, sometimes condescendingly, as "outdoor theatre." Not only was the Globe open to the sky, and not only were there no lights or sound systems, but the actors had to speak in such a way as to be heard in the far reaches of a building whose architectural sophistication was something less than amazing (as anyone who attends a production in the replica of that theatre in London can attest). Thus his comedies, to a substantial extent, depend on being played broadly and coarsely; and although much of the fun in any of them is always verbal, Much Ado About Nothing is one whose verbal humor is most accessible, and most important. This is one play where the usual move -- nobody understands the jokes anyway, so do a pratfall -- won't work.
Thus the decision not to amplify the NotaBle Acts summer production in the barracks area downtown was, it seems, a courageous and risky one. In spite of everything -- including the unexpected presence Thursday night of asphalt-laying machinery on neighbouring Carleton Street and a bagpipe concert in Officer's Square -- it is a powerfully successful one.
What is most remarkable about this production is, in fact, the way in which Shakespeare's language is projected comprehensibly by Len Falkenstein's well-chosen cast. From Benedick and Beatrice (Nick Cole and Marissa Robinson, in what can only be called star turns) down to small parts like Friar Francis (Michael Holmes-Lauder), the actors find ways to project without bellowing, to keep the language meaningful. All this renders the plot (it's not, after all, all that complicated, but still) clear -- even to those who don't know, or only vaguely remember, it. This is not to say that no lines are lost: an almost equally estimable feature of Len Falkenstein's staging is the breadth of the space used, from the balcony above the barracks' line of casement doors to the walls of the Craft School behind the audience, from the sidewalk along Carleton Street to the west end of the barracks building, where, occasionally, the audience can't be quite sure what people are saying, though we always know what's going on. And when we need the language, as people explain the various plots, or -- especially -- when Constable Dogberry (in Jeremy Gorman's nicely disciplined parody of Peter Falk as Colombo) massacres the language ("O villain! thou wilt be condemned into everlasting redemption for this"), the production puts that language at the center of our attention and lets it ring.
This is one of the most expansive Shakespeare productions I've ever seen (in my memory, only the Martello Tower Hamlet a few years ago, which seemed to cover miles of Point Pleasant Park in Halifax, exceeds it). One of the consequences of the sheer size of the acting space is that many entrances are astonishingly long -- sometimes 15 or 20 yards, it seems, extend between the characters entering and those we're already watching. In almost no case, however, does the entrance seem too long. We have reasons to await the arrival, or distractions to keep our attention elsewhere while characters approach. The audience needs to attend to its peripheral vision, as the watch drags their prisoners along, or the ominous Don John appears, lurking out at the edge or our attention. Watching Beatrice striding angrily across the lawn toward the hapless Benedick, for instance, was itself part of Marissa Robinson's characterization of her as perhaps the strongest, most powerful Beatrice I've seen.
Much of the production is, of course, physical and visual. The exaggerated "overhearing" in which Benedick is allowed to hear his pals marveling at how much Beatrice loves him allows Cole to unleash his considerable skills at slapstick, hiding improbably behind various inadequate forms of cover while his friends pretend not to notice him. Robinson similarly capitalizes on the parallel scene in which she has to hide from, and listen to, Beatrice's friends playing the same trick on her. Seann Murray and Jeff Bate Boerop, as the play's amazing villains, are differently visual; Bate Boerop's Don John (one of the most puzzling evildoers in Shakespeare: what is it with him?) gives us a wonderful cigar chewing Soprano-style gangster, and Murray's Mephistophelean Borachio is as energetically physical and disciplined as the part allows -- and, mercifully, does not overplay the drunkenness Borachio is a byword for.
No one in the cast, in fact, requires allowances for being an amateur; this is as strong a group of players as I've seen assembled in Fredericton. Many of them have years of experience, built up as participants in what is becoming a surprisingly strong theatrical community. It would be excessive to list all of them. But a few especially strong performances -- John Ball's powerful, clear, and well-defined Leonato, for instance, ebullient, enraged and devastated by turns, Matthew Spinney's hapless and earnest Claudio, Chelsea Seale's innocent and wounded Hero, Scott Shannon's delightfully conspiratorial and wonderfully ironic Don Pedro -- all are particularly responsible for making the evening remarkable.
But of course the story here is always about Benedick and Beatrice, the archetypal feuding and fencing lovers, and it's hard to imagine anyone carrying off the two parts much more effectively than Cole and Robinson. This is particularly important because so much of the delight involved in their relationship is verbal; if it's lost, Much Ado doesn't seem much of a play; with it, everything shimmers. Beatrice, for instance, begins her duel with Benedick in absentia, asking for a report of his prowess in battle: "But how many hath he killed? for indeed I promised to eat all of his killing." Benedick finds himself regularly playing catch-up: "I would my horse had the speed of your tongue, and so good a continuer. " Their relationship is what drives the play, right to the end, as Benedick finally capitulates, agreeing to become "Benedick the married man": "Come, I will have thee; but, by this light, I take thee for pity" -- and Beatrice wins again: "I would not deny you; but, by this good day, I yield upon great persuasion; and partly to save your life, for I was told you were in a consumption." All Benedick can do is kiss her: "Peace! I will stop your mouth." All of this needs to be heard, and heard accurately: and in the event, verbally as well as physically, the two ride the crest of this production all the way.
All this is supported by the neat conception of setting the play at the end of World War II (after all, it begins with the soldiers coming home), and where better could it be performed than in the barracks? Visually all of it is held together by the brilliant costuming (by Brianne Gulley) and the neat music -- including original music by John Ball and incidental music by a local pickup band up on the balcony (though I did wonder what became of them during almost all of the second act).
I often think that the final litmus test of a production is whether it reminds me of the problems a script has and the challenges it poses, or whether it makes me see what a brilliantly written one it is. Much Ado About Nothing, on the evidence of this production, is one of Shakespeare's best.