Melbourne is Bell Shakespeare’s second stop on its nationwide tour of the classic comedy Much Ado About Nothing. The story is perhaps the original romantic comedy, and follows Beatrice (Zindzi Okenyo) and Benedick (Duncan Ragg), who go from mildly disgusted in each other to totally infatuated. Around them there are a number of friends, family and vagrants living in Messina, including another pair of lovers Claudio (Will McDonald) and Hero (Vivienne Awosoga). Directed by James Evans, the company leans into a more feminist reading of what can be a bamboozling text.
Okenyo immediately makes it clear that Beatrice is an independent woman who has been hurt in the past, and acts as a pillar of support for her wronged cousin Hero. Although the company keeps the original ending in which Hero takes Claudio back, there is a sense of unease from the company and a demonstration that Hero knows her worth. Awosoga presents a girl who is gentle and vulnerable, but who later becomes fierce and defiant. These strong women contrast against the male characters, who, save Benedick, talk about women in aggressively misogonistic ways. Evans highlights this disparity though actor physicality and approach to the text, thus demonstrating the evident flaws in this male dominated story.
However, many of the originally male characters are also gender swapped, shining a light on some of the ludicrous behaviour of the men of Messina. Mandy Bishop is a standout Dogberry, utilising impeccable comic timing and physical comedy to build upon the pre established foolishness of the police.
As this is a touring production, the set must be simple and transportable, whilst also evoking time and place, and giving the actors something to work with. Pip Runciman’s scaffolding and moveable smaller pieces certainly provide the actors with plenty of stage business, to an excessive degree. Plants, benches and fairy lights are almost constantly being moved around the stage for what seems like no reason. Although the set itself suggests a leafy Mediterranean landscape, the costumes clash wildly. Whilst some are in Italian style suits and dark glasses, others wear clothes representative of the bogan Australian, and any sense of time and place is destroyed by this jumble of costuming.
Design aside, this is a fiercely strong ensemble, with most actors playing multiple characters with ease. The play flits between displays of physical comedy and moments of severe drama, and the performers have no trouble interpreting the text and presenting it in an understandable and relevant way. The audience are swept along for the Bell Shakespeare ride; we stand with Hero, are joyful for the union of Beatrice and Benedick and condemn the men in their patriarchal displays of dominance. Evans’ direction ensures we see this classic story through a critical lens, but doesn’t sacrifice the true moments of comedy and connection that the text provides.
Bell Shakespeare’s production of Much Ado About Nothing runs from 17 – 27 July at Arts Centre Melbourne in The Fairfax Studio.