Much Ado About Nothing
Queensland Theatre Company
April 23 – May 15 2016
Reviewed by Xanthe Coward
Much Ado About Nothing has everything going for it. A stunning design, a stellar cast and deft direction; it’s joyous, genuinely uplifting, entertaining theatre.
Jason Klarwein’s mainstage directorial debut marks him as one of our brightest, with an aesthetic that is a breath of fresh air to Brisbane. We’ve seen the commercial appeal of his approach to reimagining the classics with QTC’s production of Dan Evans’ Oedipus Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and with this take on Shakespeare we’re reminded that there are those who just get it. Klarwein is one of those, with his production demonstrating why it is we still “do” Shakespeare. Klarwein brings an unequivocally entertaining version of Much Ado to the Playhouse stage.
Thanks to Designer, Richard Roberts (Design For Living, Managing Carmen) and Lighting Designer Ben Hughes (The Seagull, Happy Days, Grounded, HOME), the company has the most beautiful Queensland setting in which to play (although, interestingly, it’s contained, rather than being allowed to fill the space). His Messina boasts no Tuscan inspired marble floored mansion or pencil pines out front, but a luxury waterfront home of pristine white, wooden shutters and billowing curtains, wide verandahs, towering palm trees and manicured lawns, and simple, stylish furnishings. We might be on Hamilton Island, overlooking Whitehaven Beach during Race Week, or relaxing in Cato’s during the days and nights of a pre-refurbished Sheraton Noosa. The place feels light and breezy, sophisticated and carefree. A full revolve, as it did for Managing Carmen, allows seamless transitions and amusing stage antics between scenes.
In this serene playground for the privileged, against the beautiful blue hues of the sea and sky (and later, gorgeous dark storm clouds), Shakespeare’s characters chat and frolic, eventually confessing their true feelings, challenging us to consider love and longing, and the value of living in the moment, making every minute count. We don’t have to work hard to work out what’s going on; the language is clear (the cuts to the text are clean) and the contemporary reading makes Shakespeare’s themes as relevant now as they were 400 years ago without labouring any of the political points. But without adding the technological advances (there’s no tinder here, nor does anyone stop to take a selfie or type a status or relationship update – IT’S COMPLICATED), I have a single moment of dissatisfaction when considering the storytelling… And it’s only because I’ve thought about it. During the show I think nothing of it, simply accepting that it’s an unplugged, technology-free weekend away. And don’t we dream of such weekends?!
For the bantering, bickering Beatrice and Benedick, love is a battlefield. Once bitten and twice shy, the sharp-witted pair are locked in a verbal fencing match with no quarter asked and none given. Is there any way their friends can open their eyes to their true feelings for each other?
For the starry-eyed young couple Claudio and Hero, love is a many-splendoured thing – that’s if they can take their eyes off each other long enough to avoid being deceived by bitter schemer Don John.
Christen O’Leary’s energy is infectious, her bold Beatrice, on the Saturday evening after opening, achieving the perfect balance of scorn and pixie charm. Emboldened, quickened vocal work and the assured stage presence we’ve become accustomed to makes O’Leary’s performance a stand out. I know it seems strange to mention the stage presence of a seasoned performer (should it not be a given? It’s the confidence in the space that translates to something very difficult to define), however; there are others who, with much the same experience in the industry, still don’t impress upon me such a solid, grounded, glorious energy, and a genuine connection with the actors and audience. Handled beautifully, her later frustration commands our attention.
O’Leary, along with Hugh Parker and Bryan Probets, are among the favourites from QTC’s stables (or should that be staples?), and from their work in this production (let alone their individual bodies of work) it’s not hard to see why. Parker’s Benedick brings great comedy to proceedings, his “skirmish of wit” with Beatrice and his gangly physical comedy delighting the audience. As a QTC statesman, it’s appropriate to see Probets as the statesman here – a wise and reasonable, distinguished and smartly dressed Leonato. Just when we thought we were getting used to Probets-the-comical-and-character-actor, we are shown a completely different aspect to the man. I love it.
You know I love Tama Matheson, exuding natural confidence and charm here as Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon. (I can’t wait to see him again in Don Juan, in Noosa in July). By capturing the very essence of upstanding royalty (and loyalty), Matheson’s performance is a magnificent example of making a character one’s own. In this ensemble he shines, along with O’Leary and Liz Buchanan (Dogberry), who each live and breathe the language fully; their lines coming “trippingly on the tongue”. Interestingly, no vocal coach is credited, though it’s my guess Klarwein felt comfortable enough with the spoken text (and with the support of the singers in the cast and creative team) to omit this role.
Hayden Jones (Don John) is appropriately nasty and melancholy and Mark Conaghan (Borachio), the ideal henchman. Buchanan, Megan Shorey (Verges) and Kathryn McIntyre (Margaret) handle their cleverly-revised gender blind comedy superbly, and treat us to entertaining musical interludes with original composition and vocal arrangements by Gordon Hamilton, including a rousing new version of OutKast’s Heya. But it’s the gorgeous Patrick Dwyer (a suitably slightly insecure Claudio) who sings the sweetest treat, with a moving tribute to his love in Act 2. As Hero, Ellen Bailey is the epitome of a modern Shakespearean maid, a joy to watch and a pleasure to listen to. Keep an eye on Bailey this year…
We enjoy wonderful camaraderie between the men in this production, however, this means sitting patiently through a couple of unnecessary moments of high camp in addition to the (presumably) boyish Naval affection. Irresistible perhaps, to include these guaranteed laughs. And a costume change for O’Leary would be appreciated; despite the impact of the red and all its metaphors for her, it seems unreal for her not to have at least one other outfit available. She’d wear a Camilla equally well (the recent Athena or Pirate Heart drops would certainly suit her sensibilities and the resort style setting). Perhaps Roberts’ focus remained squarely on the set rather than the costume design for this one.
Having been perfectly cast and playfully prepared for a broad audience, QTC’s Much Ado About Nothing is set to be something that Brisbane talks about well into our state theatre company’s next season, despite this one just beginning. It’s a joy to see any of Shakespeare’s comedies handled so adeptly, with sensitivity on an emotional level, and with a strength of conviction and distinct style, which also delivers the social and political messages with aplomb.