Well, it’s official. I was already a fan of Antic Disposition’s work after enjoying their productions of Henry V and Richard III – but their latest offering, a joyous and hilarious take on Much Ado About Nothing, has well and truly sealed the deal. The play itself I have all kinds of issues with, but I’m not going to get into those, because I had such a great time watching this production that I’m seriously considering a return visit before the run ends on 1st September.
Transplanted from Italy to a small French village at the end of World War II, Much Ado sees Don Pedro (Theo Landey) and his triumphant soldiers call in to visit the town’s Governor, Leonato (Chris Hespel) on their way home. One of the officers, Claudio (Alexander Varey), falls in love with Leonato’s daughter Hero (Floriane Andersen), and Don Pedro steps in to arrange their marriage. He then turns his attention to convincing Hero’s cousin Béatrice (Chiraz Aïch) and another of his men, Benedick (Nicholas Osmond), that their constant bickering actually masks much deeper feelings. It’s all going swimmingly, until Pedro’s bastard brother Don John (Alfie Webster) teams up with soldier Borachio (Tommy Burgess) and Hero’s unwitting maid Margaret (Molly Miles) to convince Claudio that Hero’s been unfaithful to him, leading him to publicly shame her and leave her for dead on her wedding day. But this is a Shakespearean comedy, so we can all guess what happens next: Don John’s plot is uncovered, all is forgiven, and everyone has a song and dance to end the evening.
The Anglo-French cast are superb. Chiraz Aïch and Nicholas Osmond give brilliant verbal and physical comedy performances as Béatrice and Benedick, while Alexander Varey is a perfectly petulant Claudio to Floriane Andersen’s tender-hearted (and, in my opinion, far too forgiving) Hero. But the stars of the show, for me, are the two relatively minor characters of Dogberry and Verges, played by the wonderful Louis Bernard and Scott Brooks. Presumably there’s not a lot of policing to be done in this small rural village, because Constable Dogberry and his long-suffering deputy also appear to run – somewhat ineptly – a cafe on the side. This not only means we get to see much more of their characters in Act 1 than we usually would; it also allows directors Ben Horslen and John Risebero to explore the predominantly silent comedic style of French film director Jacques Tati. Bernard is particularly delightful to watch; we may not understand everything he says but such is his charisma it really doesn’t matter – and because English isn’t Dogberry’s native language, we’re much more sympathetically inclined than usual towards him and his bizarre vocabulary. (Also, “I am an ass!” sounds much funnier in a French accent.)
In addition to the bilingual cast, there are other elements of the production that will be familiar to fans of Antic Disposition’s previous shows. Music plays an important part in the play; Nick Barstow’s compositions, performed by the cast, contribute to the evening’s celebratory mood. The venue too is unique: having visited some of the nation’s most stunning cathedrals during July, followed by performances in France earlier this month, the tour concludes at London’s historic Gray’s Inn Hall, which is transformed for the occasion into Dogberry’s very traditional French cafe.
In summary, this production is so much fun that you’re pretty much guaranteed to leave with a smile on your face (and possibly with a hankering to run away to the French countryside). Don’t miss the final few opportunities to be charmed by this riotously entertaining clash of cultures.
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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.
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“David Lynch colliding with The Godfather – and a bit of Cruel Intentions…” is David Fairs’ intriguing summary of GOLEM!’s second production. Following the success of last year’s Macbeths (check out my review for LondonTheatre1), the company are back at The Hope Theatre on 13th June with I Know You Of Old, a fresh take on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.
“I took the original text and then built a new story out of it,” explains David, who also plays Benedick in the play. “So it only has three characters, and the starting point for our play is two weeks after the actual death of Hero. We pick up the night before her funeral, when Benedick, Beatrice and Claudio all encounter each other in the chapel of rest, and the whole play takes place over about twelve hours leading up to the funeral the next morning.”
“You don’t need to be familiar with Much Ado,” adds director Anna Marsland. “Our hope is that you’re coming to see a new play in which you know someone’s died and you know these three people are connected to her, and you’re uncovering the story as the play goes on. But my hope is that anyone who does know the play gets an added extra in terms of seeing that dialogue repurposed.”
GOLEM!’s first production, Macbeths, followed the same narrative as Shakespeare’s original but placed the Macbeths’ domestic relationship at the heart of the story. “I’d always had this fascination with examining Shakespeare’s great characters as real people who are brilliant examples of the human condition,” explains David. “So I just started to think about how we might do that, and the first thing that came to mind was Lady Macbeth, and I became really fascinated with the idea of isolating those two characters and seeing what story could be told.
“Then after Macbeths, I started thinking about other relationships it would be interesting to isolate and examine. Much Ado is one of my favourite plays, and I was most interested in the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick, why they behave like that – they’re very entertaining but when you actually look at them, they’re very odd. They know each other so well that they can play whatever game they want, they can tactically pick up on what the other person is doing and destroy them with it. You have to know someone incredibly well to do that, and it was interesting to me to put that relationship into a pressurised environment.
“And the other element that’s always struck me as missing is a real deep examination of the shaming of Hero – because it’s something that occurs and is then forgotten. The thing that happens to her is horrendous; she’s destroyed on her wedding day by her father and her fiancé, and yet in that final scene nobody offers her an apology.”
“So this play is putting that completely at the heart of it,” says Anna. “She’s been slut-shamed, she’s been destroyed – and that has gone so far that she’s died; that pain has killed her.”
Unlike Macbeths, development for I Know You Of Old has been a collaborative process from the start, with input from both David and Anna, along with fellow company members Sarah Lambie (Beatrice) and Conor O’Kane (Claudio). “Dave and I often have very similar instincts about things,” explains Anna. “I think we are artistically very much on the same page, and I think it’s important that we trust each other a lot. But I think that trust has allowed us to make that distinction quite smooth: I trust Dave to go off and write the thing – after we had the idea, we signed the contract to go and do it at The Hope and then I said, ‘Okay you need to write it now!’
“And we were quite strict with ourselves – workshop, second draft, workshop, rehearsal draft. And once the rehearsal draft is done, that’s when Dave hands it over to me. And of course there are little tweaks but the fundamental set-up and structure are there – and I feel like we’ve tested it as a piece of writing rigorously enough that now we’re in rehearsals I’ve got Dave the actor in the room, not Dave the writer.”
“I do implicitly trust Anna with the script and the play,” agrees David. “That became so evident immediately when we were doing Macbeths in that I had the script, but as soon as I gave it Anna to direct she brought things out of it that I hadn’t even dreamed of. So it’s a really nice process – I prepare it, we have that crossover period where we’re workshopping it, and we work out that we’re on the same page and streamline it down to that shared idea, and then I’m happy to hand it over.”
“I’ve not really worked on a play in the same way before, in terms of being so involved with the actors who are going to be in it,” says Anna. “And as a company it feels like we had the luxury of a lot of development time, which has taken the pressure off rehearsals because we’ve had all those conversations over the last six months between the four of us about where this piece is heading.”
And what of those people who think Shakespeare is not to be messed with? “I have no problem with this being polarising, I think that’ll be very interesting,” says David. “And I don’t think there’s any disrespect in any of it – I’m very much coming from the point of view of someone who absolutely loves Shakespeare. He is my favourite playwright, my favourite thing to act and to watch. I have a huge amount of respect for him, and it doesn’t feel like that is in conflict with what I’m doing.
“None of this is arbitrary – the structure and form of this play is very much designed to almost be an extension and a compliment to Much Ado, not a rehash of it. I think you can revere Shakespeare and the words he wrote, without considering that it’s sacrilegious to do anything to the text. I love the idea that actually what he gave us was an incredibly rich raw material that is so brilliant that we actually don’t lose the DNA in the expansion of it.
“I also love what previous – and the current – artistic directors have done with Shakespeare’s work at the Globe. Going back to Rylance, I love the idea that you can take this and you can play with it – the idea is that it’s something to be enjoyed and experimented with.”
“We wanted to take it a step further this time,” adds Anna. “The idea of setting up GOLEM! was about how much we can take a text and change it some way, and one way of doing that is this re-orchestration. And it’s how far we can push that, so there we just changed the text to the story of Macbeths and reshaped it; here we’re taking the text and the characters and some of the plot, and veering off in another direction. And I don’t know what the next step would be – maybe taking the text and telling a completely different story, or even taking multiple texts.”
Anna and David first worked together at university, an experience he remembers for one very specific reason… “My overriding memory of what Anna had me do was get covered head to toe in ice cream for the final scene of the play – but we discovered ice cream doesn’t look like ice cream when you’re covered in it. So ultimately I was covered in gallons of Angel Delight, performing in a theatre that didn’t have showers, and had to leg it across the city to a friend’s room and shower, then head back for a drink!
“Once the prospect of the R&D space for Macbeths became available at the Catford upon Avon festival last March, I obviously knew that we needed a director and Anna was top of my list to approach. I knew that she’d worked at the RSC and the Globe, and that she was London-based at the moment because she was – and still is – Resident Director on Curious Incident in the West End.”
“So it was quite a chance reunion in a way,” says Anna. “I love working on Shakespeare and I also really love prioritising those female stories in Shakespeare. So interests-wise and working-wise, it was just a happy collision really.”
And what’s next for GOLEM! after I Know You Of Old? “Our hope is that what we’ll end up with is two nice companion pieces – two adapted Shakespeare plays: one tragedy that’s become a love story and one comedy that now has a much darker heart,” says Anna. “And the idea is maybe to tour them as a double bill or a pairing that could be on alternate nights. We’re kind of hoping we might take them up to Edinburgh next year.”
“And another idea once we’ve finished this run, the next thing I’d be interested in looking at is a direct sequel to Macbeths, picking up and seeing where all of the characters might have ended up,” suggests David. “And potentially with this one forming a story and a script out of multiple plays, out of the whole canon, and seeing what story I can build.”
Book now for I Know You Of Old at The Hope Theatre from 13th June to 1st July.
The Tower Theatre Company begins each performance with an announcement of their next production – which is usually only a week or two (if that) in the future; in addition to this week’s Much Ado About Nothing, they’ve got four more plays lined up between now and mid-July. Yet even with such a hectic schedule, the quality of each production remains consistently high.
Perhaps it helps in this case that the Tower Theatre are no strangers to Much Ado About Nothing; in fact this is their eighth production (the first was way back in 1933). On this occasion, the play is directed by Jean Carr and John Morton with an Austen-esque vibe. This feels rather fitting since all the romantic misunderstandings in the story wouldn’t be out of place in one of Austen’s novels – though I suspect she might have had something to say about Shakespeare’s depiction of Hero; I can’t imagine Elizabeth Bennet forgiving her fiancé quite so easily for publicly shaming and dumping her at the altar.
The story revolves around two main plots – that of Beatrice (Sarah Evans) and Benedick (Shane Sweeney), whose constant bickering hides from nobody but themselves the fact that they’re madly in love, and that of Hero (Asma Mani) and Claudio (Paul Isaacs), who fall in love at first sight but whose engagement comes to a swift and unhappy end on the wedding day after Claudio’s tricked into believing she’s been unfaithful. Somehow, in true Shakespeare comedy style, everything still ends happily – thanks largely to the intervention of local constable Dogberry (John Chapman) and his nice but dim band of minions.
In a strong cast, Sarah Evans and Shane Sweeney stand out with excellent comic performances as Beatrice and Benedick; taking obvious delight in their characters’ “merry war” when on stage together, they also have fun individually in the physical scenes as they dive behind screens and pillars to eavesdrop on their friends. Paul Isaacs and Asma Mani are equally well matched as the far too trusting lovers Claudio and Hero, and natural comedian John Chapman is a joy as Dogberry, whose good intentions are matched only by his hilariously terrible vocabulary.
Much Ado is probably one of Shakespeare’s easiest plays to follow, and this straightforward production is extremely accessible and thoroughly entertaining throughout. And if it all gets a bit ridiculous towards the end – well, we can blame Shakespeare for that. The show also looks great and has an infectious energy, the sun-kissed Mediterranean courtyard of Leonato’s home filled with ladies in colourful gowns and gentlemen in military uniform with nothing more pressing to do than sing, dance, fall in love and play matchmaker for their friends. As problematic as some of the gender roles undoubtedly are, and whether or not we subscribe to the view that the solution to all life’s unhappiness is to “get thee a wife”, this is at its heart a feel-good play, and another excellent and highly recommended production from the Tower Theatre.
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