Review: I Know You Of Old at The Hope Theatre

I recently reviewed a production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, and while the play was excellent, I was reminded, not for the first time, of how much its conclusion bothers me. Hero, who’s just been publicly shamed on her wedding day, cheerfully takes back her fiancé and forgives everyone for doubting her, despite not a word of apology ever being offered. The audience’s attention returns to the more colourful characters of Benedick and Beatrice, and Hero – having served her purpose – is instantly forgotten.

David Fairs of GOLEM! is having none of that. His dark rearrangement of the text of Much Ado places Hero at the centre of the story – in more ways than one. Using only Shakespeare’s text, he’s created an entirely new story in which Hero’s dead and Beatrice (Sarah Lambie), Benedick (David Fairs) and Claudio (Conor O’Kane) meet in the chapel on the night before her funeral. In an attempt to ease his guilt over his treatment of her, Claudio decides to bring the warring Beatrice and Benedick together, with predictably amusing results. But there’s no escaping Hero this time, because her coffin dominates the room – many of the conversations take place quite literally over her dead body, and the shocking circumstances of her untimely death must eventually be dealt with.

Whether you know Much Ado or not doesn’t really matter. I Know You Of Old stands confidently on its own two feet as an original plot that in many ways is even more compelling – and certainly more intriguing – than its source material. Placing these three pivotal characters in Hero’s story into a pressure-cooker situation, where there’s nowhere to hide (though Benedick gives it a try), allows us to examine the dysfunctional relationships between them in a whole new light. And one thing’s for sure; while the play’s conclusion is rather open-ended, it’s far from unsatisfying.

Shakespeare lovers need not fear, though – by taking apart the text, GOLEM! aren’t being disrespectful, but instead demonstrating the astonishing versatility and enduring relevance of the words written so many centuries ago. In keeping with this, director Anna Marsland brings the story bang up to date; this is Shakespeare with iPads, motorcycle helmets, teddy bears and even Cher – suffice to say it isn’t your standard pre-funeral vigil. And yet somehow the 400-year-old text describes perfectly everything we can see, a reminder that while the world around us may change, human behaviour and emotions remain as messed up as they’ve ever been.

The play’s casting could hardly be more perfect. Conor O’Kane is every inch the heartbroken bridegroom, but with an appealing childlike quality that makes it easy to see how he could have been tricked into believing Hero’s guilt. All three actors are skilled comedians, and succeed in getting a laugh out of a single word or the simplest look or gesture; the verbal sparring between Sarah Lambie and David Fairs – who also starred together in Golem!’s previous production, the excellent Macbeths – is a comic delight (the layout of the theatre is such that watching their exchanges begins to feel like being on Centre Court at Wimbledon). But with Beatrice grieving for her cousin, their flirting takes on a darker edge that eventually spills over into something altogether more disturbing.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Anna Marsland’s production is its extraordinary attention to detail. There are real candles burning, a smell of incense in the air, and sombre music playing as we enter the dark chapel, and the stiflingly hot weather – however uncomfortable – conveniently helps to complete the claustrophobic effect. The use of modern technology isn’t just for show, either; the letter that Benedick reads out can be clearly seen on the iPad screen, as can the incriminating video he later views on his phone.

I Know You Of Old is an astonishing achievement, and a brave choice to take apart a play so many people know so well. David Fairs has succeeded because he’s used the opportunity to tackle some of the unfinished business in Shakespeare’s work – like the appalling, unpunished treatment of Hero, and what makes Beatrice and Benedick behave the way they do. Consequently it’s clear that this is not a gratuitous ripping up of a classic, but rather a fitting and respectful complement to the original, a gripping new tale which can be enjoyed by Shakespeare fans and newbies alike.

I Know You Of Old is at The Hope Theatre until 1st July.

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