‘Much Ado About Nothing’ was the talk of the town.
Summertime in Melbourne is renowned for the activities it brings. Every December to February, the nation’s cultural capital hosts events ranging from the Myer Christmas Windows and the St Kilda Festival to the Great Ocean Road Race and the Australian Open. For many, these yearly events represent a quintessential piece in the cultural tapestry of Melbourne’s lifestyle. The annual ‘Shakespeare Under the Stars’ season by the Australian Shakespeare Company (ASC) is no exception. For their first production of 2023, the ASC is pulling out one of the Bard’s most beloved, and talked about, comedies, ‘Much Ado About Nothing’.
As it has for the past 36 years, the ASC’s ‘Shakespeare Under the Stars’ takes pride of place upon the Royal Botanic Gardens’ Southern Cross Lawn. Draped in fairy lights and picnic blankets, the lawn beckons families to get comfortable with cheese platters and wine glasses. The warm hue of dusk settles upon the Gardens, providing a picturesque, warm backdrop for the romantic play.
Believed to have been penned between 1598 and 1599, ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ (colloquially referred to as ‘Much Ado’) is one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated comedies. As is customary of the modern-day rom-com, tropes such as misinformation, meddling families, and a disdain-turns-to-love narrative run throughout ‘Much Ado’.
The play tells the story of two romantic couples on the Sicilian island of Messina. Originally focusing upon the courtship of Claudio, a Florentine count, and Hero, daughter of Messina’s governor, Leonato; the play gradually shifts its spotlight onto its second pairing of Claudio’s friend, Benedick, and Hero’s cousin, Beatrice. While the former couple embraces their affection for each other immediately, the latter are motivated by rumours they hear about the other being in love with them. What transpires is a series of comical misunderstandings, which prove that truth can at times be stranger than fiction.
‘Much Ado About Nothing’ has witnessed a multitude of productions and adaptations. The 1972-73 production at New York’s Winter Garden Theater is noted as being the play’s longest run on Broadway. The following decade, Sir Derek Jacobi earned a Tony Award for his turn as Benedick. In its native England, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1982 production received critical acclaim. More recently, the play was staged at The Globe Theatre in 2011. London’s The Old Vic Theatre held a production two years later, with Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones performing as Beatrice and Benedick, respectively.
The play has also inspired several film adaptations. It was first adapted to the screen in a 1913 silent film directed by Phillips Smalley. 80 years later, Sir Kenneth Branagh directed an adaptation featuring a large ensemble cast including Dame Emma Thompson, Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves, Michael Keaton, and Kate Beckinsale. Joss Whedon brought the play into the 21st century with his mafia-inspired adaptation featuring the likes of Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, and Nathan Fillion.
In a similar vein to Whedon, the ASC’s production breathes fresh life into the play through its use of costuming, set design, and music. Each element of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ offers an intriguing contrast in style, bridging the gap between the play’s Elizabethan roots and a contemporary audience.
At first glance, Karla Erenbots’ costuming could be considered standard fare for a Shakespearean production. Performers are laced with corsets, waistcoats, and stylish embellishments. However, much like other historic-contemporary hybrid shows (i.e., ‘Six’ and ‘& Juliet’), Erenbots’ costume design in ‘Much Ado’ is sprinkled with modernity. Short, ruffled skirts, heavy metal wigs, and velvet trench coats aid in promoting the production’s rock concert aesthetic. Erenbots’ costume design is both vibrant and reverent. Audiences are likely to be transfixed by the colourful foray onstage.
This classical-modern juxtaposition is continued through to ‘Much Ado’s’ set and prop design. Peter Amesbury, Claire Duncan, and Kaspa Elston, the show’s Production Manager, Stage Manager, and Costume and Props Coordinator, respectively, demonstrate a unified eye for contiguity. The stage’s vibrant 1980s-inspired design plays well into the musical framework of the production. Contrasting this with wooden barn doors and filigree wallpaper further highlights Amesbury, Duncan and Elston’s aim to bring the Shakespearean comedy into 21st-century society. Arguably, the musical equipment box, which at various points in the play doubles as a table, altar, and mausoleum, is the most striking example of this apposition.
Over the years, the ASC has garnered a reputation for playing with the format of Shakespeare’s work, presenting his plays in varied ways and styles. ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ proves no different. Musical Director Paul Norton draws upon several of the play’s famous quotes to orchestrate the production into a musical. Of sorts. As emphasised within the prologue, it is still a play – just with music. This proves a refreshing delight, as performers are given the chance to sing, dance, and quote the Bard in one.
Norton’s musical direction works well with Sue-Ellen Shook’s choreography. Like Norton, Shook also leans into the origins of the play. Demonstrating an appreciation for more classic Shakespearean comedic productions, physical humour is rife throughout. That is not to say there is no trace of modernity in Shook’s choreography, however. Several songs feature well-constructed dance numbers, supporting the production’s rock concert vibe. Norton and Shook’s offerings further solidify the contrasting time periods of ASC’s ‘Much Ado’.
Directed by the ASC’s Director Glenn Elston OAM, ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ celebrates the universal appeal of Shakespeare and the ability for his plays to be reimagined time and time again. Choosing to incorporate musical elements into the production proves a wise decision by Elston. As language and interpretation are so imperative to the play, it feels only natural that emotion be conveyed throughout with lyrics. Elston demonstrates a passion for music that almost rivals his passion for Shakespeare’s works. His direction showcases a celebration of performing in all its facets – music, dance, and acting.
It is evident that Elston’s passion is also shared wholeheartedly by the entire cast. Incorporating numerous mainstay performers of the ASC, as well as a few fresh faces, each member of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’s’ cast relishes in their opportunity to bring the classic play to a modern audience.
The ensemble cast overflows with joyous chemistry, affording each member their chance to shine. Syd Brisbane, Jack Green, Tony Harvey, Heath Ivey-Law, Meg McKibbin, Olivia McLeod, and Hugh Sexton each showcase apt ability in their roles.
Kevin Hopkins is deliciously villainous as Don John. Elizabeth Brennan, as his protégé Borachio, is intriguingly complex. Claire Nicholls, as the gender-flipped Leonata, exudes eminence.
The pairing of Alex Cooper’s Claudio and Larissa Teale’s Hero is earnest and cheerful. As the embattled rivals-turned-lovers Beatrice and Benedick, Anna Burgess and Nicholas Cameron are charmingly charismatic.
Tony Rive and Madeleine Somers, as police-come-roadies Verges and Dogberry respectively, are the unsung heroes of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’. Comedically playing off one another, audiences are sure to mark their performances with a definitive ‘check!’.
As Melbourne’s summer begins to heat up, The Australian Shakespeare Company’s ‘Shakespeare Under the Stars’ returns to the Royal Botanic Gardens for another season of twilight performances. As the first production of the 2022-23 season, ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ offers audiences a musical take on the Bard’s iconic comedy. Whether it be for the play, the music, or just to experience theatre in the park, ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ is sure to leave audiences with a smile on their faces and a song in their heads. Nothing much more to a-do but go see it!
‘Much Ado About Nothing’ performs as part of the Australian Shakespeare Company’s ‘Shakespeare Under the Stars’ season until Saturday, 4 February 2023 at Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens. For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit the ASC’s website.
Photo Credit: Ben Fon