September 5, 2006, by Peter Kirwan

Much Ado About Nothing (Bristol Old Vic) @ The Swan Theatre

Not the phenomenal and sold-out RSC ‘Much Ado’ with Tamsin Greig and Joseph Millson- this was another of the youth productions, this time by the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.

Again only an hour and a quarter long, and omitting characters such as Antonio and Ursula, this was a very quick-paced ‘Much Ado’ that tackled the text head-on and generally came up trumps.

The funniest elements were definitely the watch scenes, using the simplest physical humour to great effect, with officers ducking from carelessly-swung pikes and an ongoing joke about the size of their weapons. Beatrice and Benedick’s verbal sparring suffered from heavy editing but was still lively and entertaining. My only personal disappointment was that the famous overhearing scenes were relatively unimaginative and static, though that said the text is so good that they tend to be funny however they’re done!

The play didn’t particularly provide new insights into the text, but it did make some interesting changes by conflating characters- Leonato and Margaret in particular came out very strongly by taking over Ursula and Antonio’s roles in addition to their own.

In a very nice touch, the play started with Don Pedro bringing on a firing squad for Don John, with drums leading right up to the moment he raised his arms and the marksmen drew their rifles and fired…. showering Don John with coloured ribbons. At the end, however, after Don John’s treachery, the exact same scene was repeated, except this time blacking out just as Don Pedro lowered his hand, leaving us to wonder if this was now the real thing.

I’m a bit worried that ‘Much Ado’ will always suffer in my mind now for being compared to the RSC’s current production, which is one of the best pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen- even the Branagh film seemed a bit sluggish after it! But this production was coming from a very different place, condensing the play for a school-age audience and presenting a clear and entertaining text, and in that sense it was very successful.

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