by Lynn on July 3, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Festival Theatre, Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont. Plays until Oct. 27, 2023.

Written by William Shakespeare

Additional text by Erin Shields

Directed by Chris Abraham

Designed by Julie Fox

Lighting by Arun Srinivasan

Composer and sound designer, Thomas Ryder Payne

Choreographer, Adrienne Gould

Cast: Graham Abbey

Anousha Alamian

Akosua Amo-Adem

Maev Beaty

Michael Blake

Déjah Dixon-Green

Austin Eckert

Allison Edward-Crewe

Jakob Ehman

John Kirkpatrick

Kevin Kruchkywich

Josue Laboucane

Cyrus Lane

Patrick McManus

Danté Prince

Glynis Ranney

Anthony Santiago

André Sills

Gordon Patrick White

Rylan Wilkie

Micah Woods

On Stage Musicians:

George Meanwell

Jonathan Rowsell

Stephan Szczesniak

A raucous, riotously funny, wonderfully thought-out production of reluctant love, the power of rumour and innuendo without considering the source of the statement, and finally a few extra speeches to set things straight and in perspective. Chris Abraham has directed a gem of a production. Graham Abbey and Maev Beaty are the crowning jewels of it.

The Story. Much Ado About Nothing is a comedy with some darker moments that are dealt with in a modern way. It’s a story of getting a second chance to do right by people you love.  A group of soldiers led by Don Pedro have just returned from a successful campaign. They are invited to spend a month at the palatial home of Leonato in Messina, in Italy. In the group is Benedick, a confirmed bachelor and Claudio a fellow soldier and a close friend of Benedick. Claudio is in love with and soon engaged to Hero, Leonato’s daughter. Leonato’s niece, Beatrice earlier in her life had a relationship with Benedick, but he jilted her. She has been wounded and angry ever since, and when they meet there is a war of wit and words, each one scoring points on the other.

The friends of both Beatrice and Benedick want to get them together again, and so a trick is played in which Beatrice and Benedick overhear the friends say that Beatrice is in love with Benedick and he is in love with her. This puts the idea in the mind of Beatrice and Benedick that it’s true—they have feelings for the other.

There is another sub-plot—Don Pedro’s half-brother Don John likes to make mischief and sets in motion a plot to discredit Hero’s chaste character. He will have Claudio think that he is actually seeing Hero chat up another man at night, before the wedding. In fact the person chatting up a man at her bedroom window is Margaret, an innocent in this scheme. At the wedding Claudio refuses to marry Hero accusing her of being unfaithful. This stuns everybody, and causes Leonato to even question his own daughter’s integrity. She faints, and it’s believed she has died from the shame. This puts in motion, Benedick declaring he will challenge Claudio to a duel because of this terrible accusation. From this terrible situation, Beatrice and Benedick declare their love.

The Production. Julie Fox’s lush set is full of vegetation, pots of flowers, an orange “bush”, a majestic tree of some kind or other that dominates everything and provides lots of places to climb. Suspended above the stage is a white hoop that slowly revolves in the air. I’m thinking it’s a kind of Dyson air filter/fan thing. I learn what it is later, when the production starts.

The set suggests peace, warmth and quiet, except for the birds chirping in the background. All it lacks is a hammock in which to lounge, read books and imbibe tropical, potent drinks. 

Much Ado About Nothing is directed by Chris Abraham. He is a wonderful director, no matter if it’s a drama or comedy. But comedy is his forte. This production is full of intellectual wit, sight gags that are natural and hilarious, physical humour that comes honestly out of funny moments, and moments that are just packed with jokes and humour that will have you doubling over, gasping for breath.

Chris Abraham is also a thoughtful intellectual artist. Many characters go on a journey of discovery in Much Ado About Nothing. Certainly Beatrice and Benedick go from animosity and hurt to true love. In this case Chris Abraham felt that a few extra speeches were needed to ‘update’, explain and clarify aspects in the play that needed it. So Erin Shields—a wonderful playwright in her own right–was called in to add some speeches, first for Beatrice (Maev Beaty) and lastly for Hero (Allison Edward-Crew).

Beatrice enters and points out Hero, standing above on the balcony of the Festival Theatre. She is admiring herself in the ‘mirror’ suspended above the stage-the white hoop. (Aha!). Hero primps and poses in the mirror. Beatrice notes that her cousin Hero does not have a care in the world. That all that occupies her time is how she looks and appears. Beatrice is not being unkind. As played by Maev Beaty, Beatrice is observant, watchful to the world she lives in. Beatrice is nothing like her cousin, but still can observe, with kindness, the lovely frivolousness of her cousin.  Once that is established, we go on with the production. I also note that that hoop/mirror was revolving in the air to subtly reflect the audience as well.

When the troops come home from the campaign we witness the barbed banter of Beatrice and Benedick (Graham Abbey). As Beatrice, Maev Beaty plays her with the lingering sting of embarrassment that Benedick dumped her years before. He knows of her sharp tongue and tries to counter her with his own barbs. Both Maev Beaty and Graham Abbey have the meaning of Shakespeare in their finger-tips; the cadence and meter of the language on their tongues. They are masters at the effortless delivery, nuance and subtlety of the language. And they are both fearless, with Beatrice beating Benedick by a hair. 

Maev Beaty as Beatrice is feisty, combative—using that misplaced anger at Benedick to get even with him for dumping her years before—and his intellectual equal. Maev Beaty illuminates Beatrice’s wit, smarts, keen intelligence and integrity. And she too is open-hearted with she declares her love for Benedick.  

Graham Abbey plays Benedick as boyish, impish and irreverent. At one point he looks at the laughing audience and says, “there are too many women in this audience.” He might also be commenting on the addition of various women on stage too. In one scene Benedick asks a servant to get him some books—that servant is usually a boy. Here it’s two women, Margaret (Déjah Dixon-Green) and Ursula (Akosua Amo-Adem) and they reluctantly go and get the books and drop them on his stomach and perhaps the hint of a sucking teeth sound, letting Benedick know their contempt for him on a feminist level. Love that bit of business.

But Benedick can also be open-hearted when he finally admits and accepts that he truly loves Beatrice and says: “I do love nothing in the world so well as you. Is that not strange.” He truly sees the hurt that Beatrice is suffering because her cousin Hero is being maligned and he challenges Claudio to a dual to right it.

The biggest journey of discovery is Hero’s.  She goes from being self-absorbed and frivolous to being enlightened and confident in her self-worth as a person. She is wrongly accused of being unfaithful based on a malicious trick played on her by Don John. Immediately Claudio (Austin Eckert who plays him sweet but gullible) and Leonato (a courtly Patrick McManus) believe the lie without questioning the source of it—Don John is a malicious, mean-spirited man. And it’s not the first time that Don John has played his tricks. Initially Claudio feels awkward wooing Hero so Don Pedro says he will do it for him, making it look like he’s wooing Hero for himself but will then reveal it’s really for Claudio. (I love Claudio’s aside to the audience: “Why?” (why indeed does Don Pedro’s scheme make sense??). But then Don John puts doubt in Claudio’s mind—that in fact Don John is wooing Hero for himself. And Claudio believes him! Twice!!!

Hero has another Erin Shields speech at the end, when the truth is revealed, that she is an honourable woman. In the speech, Allison Edward-Crew as Hero chides both Claudio and her father Leonato for quickly believing she is untrue without questioning it. She makes Claudio prove to her that he is worthy to marry her, not the other way around.  She needs to know that he has grown up as well and will not fall into the easy ways of just believing any lie a male friend will tell him. She makes him question everything he believes in to win her trust and her love again. Allison Edward-Crew as Hero is full of conviction, emotional intensity and blazing intelligence

I love that.

The cast from top to bottom are a joy. Besides those I have already mentioned, Michael Blake as Don John makes mischief seem delicious, he does it with such relish. Josue Laboucane plays Dogberry, the leader of the Watch, as a man who never met a malapropism he didn’t love to bits. He is so self-righteous. Jakob Ehman as Borachio is so excited about the trick he’s played on Claudio and Hero he practically twists himself up and exhausts himself with the pushing of the lines. A little less gusto would be perfect and just as funny. As excitable as Borachio is that, is as laid back as Conrad is as played by Cyrus Lane. How does a character move at all if he is tied up from top to bottom? Cyrus Lane gives a masterclass in just such a movement. I must mention George Meanwell. He is such a gifted musician and proves it here, by always enhancing the scene with his presence on guitar, accordion, violin and anything he sets his mind to.

More on Chris Abraham and his attention to detail. He makes the audience see that detail. Margaret (Déjah Dixon-Green) is one of my favourite characters in Much Ado About Nothing. It’s a small but so vital and important a part. Margaret holds the key to the second ruse—in which Don John tries to discredit Hero’s character.

Borachio says that Margaret will do anything for him, so it’s set up that Margaret will be talking to him from a window late at night. Don John suggests to Claudio that Hero is unfaithful and will urge him to watch what transpires from a ‘bedroom’ widow with ‘Hero’. Claudio will not know that it is Margaret he is watching, not Hero. When he sees what happens Claudio humiliates Hero at the wedding the next day.

While one is fixated on how Hero is humiliated by Claudio downstage, upstage is the wedding party, looking on in horror. One of the party is Margaret. It’s fascinating watching Déjah Dixon-Green slowly register that the person being talked about at the window late at night was her. She looks on, stunned, comes forward a step to make sure we see her reacting, then she covers her mouth in emotion and runs off. It’s a small scene, but created with such care and detail by Chris Abraham to quietly reveal the truth.  Later the story is out that it was Margaret, not Hero at that window.

Comment. I love the fact that the 21st century visits Beatrice and Benedick when they lived to flesh out areas that are not addressed. Shakespeare is always being fiddle with—the play is still there and it’s living and breathing.

The Stratford Festival presents:

Plays until Oct. 27, 2023.

Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes (1 intermission)

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