March 28, 2019, by Peter Kirwan
Much Ado about Nothing (Northern Broadsides) @ Derby Theatre
Conrad Nelson’s swansong production for Northern Broadsides offered a paeon to rural England in its mise-en-scene. A huge cyclorama showed sprawling green fields; sheep baa-ed in the distance and birds tweeted. Lis Evans’s set located the production at the close of World War II, with ‘Dig for Victory!’ posters lining flats at the side of the stage, and another poster reminding soldiers ‘Don’t say a word – not even to her’. This poster – which read in the context of Much Ado about Nothing as a little bit of paranoid misogyny – offered a jarring note amid the idyllic environment, introducing a production that was celebratory of a time of English community, while also gently critical of it.
The end of World War II is an obvious setting for Much Ado, offering a historically specific justification for a returning military force and a home front populated by women who have grown used to running their own lives. The production opened with the play’s four women going about the business of converting household waste into pig food, and they wore the Dig for Victory uniforms with beaming smiles and a song. The image of them breaking into ragtime show tunes to entertain themselves, performing the dance moves of Hollywood starlets while in their wellies, was a striking one, setting up a world in which women had more confidence in the blurring of traditional gendered roles. They seemed quite happy without the men.
In some ways, then, this production was an ideal counterpart to Christopher Luscombe’s post-WWI RSC production of a few years ago, but exchanging the Downton Abbey-esque class milieu for the communal farming classes of Yorkshire. There was still privilege here – Simeon Truby’s Leonato was a wealthy farmer and powerful local figure – but the emphasis from the start was on the collective wartime spirit of British propaganda. It was fascinating, then, that the return of the RAF men was such a mixed blessing. On the one hand, there was joy at homecoming; on the other, there was awkwardness. Linford Johnson’s ramrod-stiff Claudio struggled to make himself comfortable in a chair; Isobel Middleton’s Beatrice, who had seemed especially at home in the female-led household, seemed at a loss for words; and apart from a brief interlude at the fancy-dress ball, Claudio and Matt Rixon’s Don Pedro never took off their military uniforms. Where Luscombe’s production addressed the shifting gender roles of a post-war age, Nelson’s explored the difficulties of adjusting to peacetime.
The poster warning soldiers not to trust their secrets with ‘her’ was visible onstage throughout, and Johnson’s strait-laced, wide-eyed Claudio seemed to have taken it to heart. He spoke enthusiastically and winningly of his love for Hero, but as soon as an idea was planted in his head, he assumed the worst. A living embodiment of the boys-club values of the RAF, he slipped between two moods as if on a binary setting: the part of romantic lover, and the part of aggrieved soldier. This led to a particularly unpleasant wedding service, in which he shoved Sarah Kameela Impey’s Hero roughly back into her father’s arms, before marching around the assembled guests, speaking his condemnation of Hero from all sides as if trying to draw the rest of the guests into his point of view. With the context of wartime treason, the accusations felt like a trial with more serious implications.
This was the most serious manifestation of a question that ran through the whole production – what do we do now we’re at peace? For some this was straightforward; Anthony Hunt’s Scouse spiv Borachio was already in trilby hat and natty handkerchiefs, lurking in the shadows and making deals with his information. The Watch were a slapstick Dad’s Army outfit, with David Nellist’s Dogberry and James McLean’s Verges engaging in an elaborate visual gag with a single chair that both of them wanted to set in during Borachio’s interrogation, and a series of intricate salutes every time the name of the Prince was mentioned; the Watch would presumably endure. But in other senses, there didn’t seem to be an end to the fighting. Richard J Fletcher’s Don John had a long scene in which he undressed and washed himself, changing out of his warden’s uniform into a civilian suit; with his greased back hair and permanent scowl, he was a disaffected presence who seemed to be without cause until the idea of maligning Hero was presented to him. And the ease with which people fell for his plan suggested that they were still ready for conflict, even in the domestic sphere.
The most entertaining conflict was, inevitably, between Beatrice and Robin Simpson’s Benedick. Rather older than Claudio and Hero, Beatrice and Benedick brought a little world-weariness to their roles, and Beatrice in particular seemed to have little time for games as she stomped in her wellies about the stage. Benedick was crisply military, apart from his appearance newly shaven in civilian clothes; both were clearly most comfortable in the uniforms that had marked their life separate to one another. Interestingly, and perhaps not entirely intentionally, it was Beatrice who ended up putting away her Dig for Victory clothes and returning to dresses, while Benedick resumed his military uniform; fitting, perhaps, for a play that for all its investment in Beatrice’s development, does end up silencing her. But in their earlier scenes, the conflict centred around trying to find a common ground following the reduced need for them to serve their respective callings.
For the overhearing scenes, both characters played with physical comedy. Benedick’s allowed him to be more active; he swung from a ladder on which he hid, and mouthed ‘Fuck off!’ at the servant who tried to bring him a book, then he ran into the audience and hid himself underneath a woman on the front row who he forced to sit on her knee (she was very game, much to the amusement of the onstage tricksters). Beatrice was rendered more passive, eventually choosing to hide in Chekhov’s Human-Sized Slops Bin, though the decision of Ursula and Hero to pour a bucket of slops over her seemed a little surprisingly unkind.
Yet while these sequences stressed the knockabout comedy, the actors excelled in the more serious elements. The wedding scene became shockingly violent as Leonato threw the folding chairs about the stage and even picked one up as if to strike the prostrate Hero, and Benedick and Beatrice were left sitting amid the ruins of the ceremony. There were long pauses as they geared up to say the things on their mind, which then emerged in moving outbursts (‘I love nothing in the world so much as you’). Middleton’s choice to scream ‘Kill Claudio’ was surprising, and yet the force of it took Benedick aback, which then required time for them to come to terms with one another. Once agreeing to challenge Claudio, Benedick’s military training came back to the fore, and his confrontation with Claudio was calm, severe and quite frightening, as much as Claudio tried to joke his way out of it.
The jarring notes were quickly reconciled, and the fundamentally good heart of Northern Broadsides shone through, with Borachio repenting sincerely, sitting down aghast as he heard of Hero’s death, and Claudio and Hero given the chance for complete reconciliation. The healing power of music was essential here. As often with Broadsides, the onstage music was a highlight. ‘Sigh no more’ was a barbershop quartet; the masquerade involved a rotating series of singers and players going through a formidable repertoire of 40s standards; and Claudio’s lament for Hero was accompanied by a bluesy clarinet and moving backing vocals. The folk and traditional influences in the music throughout, from a violin recital of ‘We plough the fields and scatter’ to open the show, to a square dance at the close, all served to bind the community closer together; and this became most important when Claudio was presented with four veiled women, all singing a song to him. As he asked which one he was to marry, the women one by one stopped singing until only Hero was left, creating a ritualistic meeting between the two that began the process of healing.
The production began with a dance interrupted by the sound of a plane flying overheard and a moment’s ominous wondering if this was an attack or a return; it ended with a trombonist interrupting the closing dance to parody the same noise with a long trombone blast from side to side. The unifying dance, even with Don John’s absence, suggested a hope for peacetime, with suspicion hopefully put aside. The longing for this idealised moment of victory and community, of course, is rose-tinted and not a little problematic in the current political context; such troubling implications were not part of Broadsides’ celebratory production, but the enthusiastic response in Derby perhaps fed into a desire that all conflicts could be resolved so easily.