UoE Shakespeare Society’s staging of Much Ado About Nothing opens with verve: May Macleod, who plays Audrey, sings in the dim red-purplish light of what could be the club room or dining hall of Hotel Messina, where the action takes place. The stage is minimally set and the band is in view, a red ‘Messina’ sign hangs over them. The upscale hotel, run by Leonato, (a well-cast Sam Foster, comfortable in the role of the gracious host and flush social figure) is where a group of RAF soldiers, jubilant over the Second World War’s end, return to. These soldiers are Don Pedro — ‘the prince’, and the most socially powerful of all, Benedick, Claudio and Don Pedro’s socially envious brother, the classic Jacobean bastard-outcast figure: Don John.
The setting of Much Ado in ‘Hotel Messina’ in the spirit of post-war triumph, with the key male characters as returning members of the RAF — the branch of the army most commonly associated with the upper-class — is a shrewd and perfect fit for the emotional setting and expectations of the Bard’s famous comedy.
Perhaps the most memorable aspect of UoE Shakespeare Soc’s staging was how excellently cast the characters were. As already mentioned: Sam Foster is apt as Leonato; Will Jarvis carries the social well-to-do and manners of a prince — his hair Caeser-ish — while the potency of his military prestige is evident; Alex McKeon’s Benedick is on par with Jenni Lanes’ Beatrice (perhaps the strongest performances in the play) — as they should be in a well-balanced casting, equals in wit who cannot help but war with words — and his snide yet melancholic distaste for love quickly won me onside. Jacob Hutchings’ Claudio also marked one of the play’s most powerful performances as a young ambitious soldier and the lover of Hero (well-cast as Tamsin Keeley) — his initial rage and then soul-level remorse late in the play, after Don John’s plot to ruin his and Hero’s marriage is revealed, is inspired. George Fincher’s Don John meanwhile makes for the ideal moustache-twirling villain and his plot-hatching scene with the devoted Conrad (Patrick Swain) where he lies eating grapes reclined edges amusingly on the right side of cliché.
The plot is well incorporated with impressive and funny sequences and the use of space is sharp thanks to multiple timely and humorous stage-settings from Dogberry and his deputies, Verges and a watchman (Daniel Stanger-Cornwell, Ben Spring and Samuel Nicholls respectively). Some examples are Benedick’s eyebrow-raising tussle with one of Dogberry’s deputies behind a drinks cabinet, the well-choreographed and lively masquerade, multiple brilliant exchanges between Beatrice and Benedick and, most cunning in terms of composition, the deception of Claudio by Borachio and Margaret (Michael Hogg and Anna Blackburn respectively). Michael Hogg’s portrayal of Borachio, one of Don John’s followers and the key executor of his schemes, deserves mention as Hogg seamlessly inhabits the wily villain who is stooped, mischievous and likeable.
UoE Shakespeare Society should be proud of a staging of Much Ado that is deftly composed and beautifully cast.