An American take on Much Ado about Nothing

How the Americans take on a personal favourite holds up against its British counterpart.

An American take on Much Ado about Nothing

Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing is not only a personal favourite of mine within his canon but in the whole of theatre. The play follows Leonato’s daughter Hero, who is marrying Count Claudio having just returned from war along with Don Pedro, his brother Don Juan and Benedick. Benedick and Leonato’s niece Beatrice has an on/off relationship which rekindles in the play following false accusations Hero has been disloyal to Claudio. 

For me, it is one of Shakespeare’s most accessible plays and therefore, makes it incredibly relevant today. 

I’ve been to see two productions of Much Ado. One in Washington DC at the Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) in November 2022 and one in London at the National Theatre in August 2022, and they were both wildly different interpretations and recontexualisations.

The American production, directed by British artistic director Simon Godwin, was set in a cable newsroom called the ‘Shakespeare News network’ present day. It was a clever, realistic set that evoked all the right things without being so complex. The centre rotated to allow for other backdrops which were effectively done. I did prefer, however, the National Theatre’s production in London just a few months ago, also coincidentally directed by Simon Godwin. The setting this time was 1930s Italy at the Hotel Messina, run by Leonato and his wife Antonia. Given equal dialogue, splitting Leonato’s lines made their presence in everyone’s lives even more clear, and gave those two characters a unique ability to have their eyes in all places – rather than with just the male characters. 

The Art Deco set and costumes were perfectly fitting of the theme, as well as stunning to view. The set itself rotated like the STC production, but instead, with two rising spaces that came up out of the stage. On the right was the powder room and baths on the other. It seemed much more inventive and detailed compared to the STC production.

The acting was also mixed in the STC production. Rick Holmes as Benedick carried the show; his ability to speak Shakespeare as if it was modern English and his connection with all characters made him incredibly likeable. He was easily the best actor on the stage. Carlo Alban as Don Pedro felt forced and too young to take on a part that requires the actor to be in a difficult age range. Young enough to be seen as attractive yet old enough to be almost a father figure to Hero. He was neither and the casting choice made Don Pedro childish, unimportant, and unlikeable. 

Someone who really warmed up during the piece was Paul Deo Jr as Claudio. In the beginning, he was struggling alongside seasoned actors but really found his stride in the more emotional moments. What I saw with most of the cast was they didn’t have as much of a command of the language, except by Benedick who really understood what he was saying, used physical comedy and gesture to accentuate certain aspects making it current. Many hid behind the diction and complexity of language, which was a shame, and also seemed to put on transatlantic accents to hide their own accents which was a strange choice. 

The performances could not be faulted however in the British production in any way. Katherine Parkinson and John Hefferman as Beatrice and Benedick were superb and equally matched each other. Their relationship was always clear, and entertaining but also really pulled on your heartstrings. What was new about this production was the vulnerable, powerful interpretations of Hero and Claudio, played by Ioana Kimbrook and Eben Figueiredo. The fainting at the wedding made complete sense and did not feel dramatic, unlike the STC production, and their chemistry was intense and wonderful to witness unfold. What was refreshing was the use of the actors’ natural accents. Claudio was from the East End, Don John was Northern and Conrade was Welsh. This completely worked and made the language make even more sense.

In the American production, the costumes felt lazy for the dinner party scene but otherwise in keeping with the time period which denoted the actors in entertaining ways. For example, Don Pedro was of Hispanic heritage so was Zorro and there were a few superheroes and other characters we could reference. Each reflected the characters which was a nice personal touch. The British production had gorgeous 1930s-period clothing. While I may have a romanticism of this period in my head, it really added to the glamour of the production to hide the fascist country the family and soldiers are upholding – The Franco-Spanish war and Mussolini’s time in power is the historical context for this production. 

What was incredibly clever and very unique to the STC show, however, was their use of news reports - commenting on other Shakespearean plays throughout the action. For example, we witnessed the death of Hamlet’s father at the start, the marriage of his mother and uncle, and then his mother’s and uncle’s deaths. It was a very clever way of incorporating Shakespeare’s wider canon, especially for those new to Shakespeare, and hats off to the dramaturgs for that. It increased the accessibility of the production and gave those in the know extra easter eggs to laugh at. 

I have been incredibly lucky to witness two very different brilliant productions of Much Ado about Nothing. I personally think the British production was more bravely and more effectively executed but the STC production had many great moments too. 

For information and tickets to the STC production, visit here

Header Image Credit: Shakespeare Theatre Company and the National Theatre

Author

Gigi Downey

Gigi Downey Contributor

I am a third year actor at Rose Bruford College as well as a director, musician and writer. After completing my Gold Arts Award in February 2018 at 16, I joined my Arts Award organisation Babylon Arts as a steward and duty manager and I've done other teaching and facilitation work as well as working in theatre such as guest experience, bartender, box office admin and on the stage. I'm currently in the United States studying musical theatre and preparing to write a dissertation on, in broad terms, how theatre explores consent and desire.

https://www.voicemag.uk/interview/7047/where-are-they-now-with-gigi-downey

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