Samuel West started his Sheffield Theatres career last March with a justly acclaimed production of Terry Johnson’s Insignificance. Much Ado About Nothing is West’s first show as Artistic Director, but this time he’s chosen to tread the boards instead, with associate director Josie Rourke taking the helm.
His stellar performance certainly justifies that decision, helping to distract from the occasional weaknesses in the production and to create a memorable start to the autumn season.
On the surface, Much Ado About Nothing centres on the stories of two couples and their convoluted paths towards love and marriage. Benedick and Beatrice (played by West and the equally captivating Claire Price) have nothing but anger and scorn for each other until they are brought together via a deception that turns out to be close to the truth. The other couple, Claudio and Hero (played by Nicholas Burns and Georgina Rich), have their path to wedlock disrupted by Laurence Mitchell’s Don John, who schemes to dishonour Hero, leading Claudio to disgrace her on their wedding day.
Much Ado is also a story about machismo. Set in Sicily against a backdrop of war, the play’s men are bullish and proud. Despite their protestations of love, the bonds between the male characters are far stronger than those between the lovers, a fact that becomes darkly apparent as Claudio accuses Hero and is immediately believed by all except Beatrice.
For the men of the play, the fear of female infidelity (and the associated dishonour) seems an equal partner to the joys of love – perhaps heightened by the inevitability that these men will eventually return to the battlefield, leaving their wives behind.
The production captures all this beautifully. Set on an expertly lit stage that has all the ambience of a Mediterranean village piazza, the atmosphere is one of brooding tragedy, recalling Lorca, or even the wedding scene at the start of The Godfather.
This atmosphere is such that it requires strong comic actors to draw us into the play’s romantic machinations – fortunately Samuel West and Claire Price are easily a match for this challenge. Their on-stage encounters are the strongest scenes in the show. Both West and Price embody their characters’ evolution as they soften, despite their affirmed cynicism, under the influence of love.
The underlying brutality of the play is largely left beneath the surface. But once it, inevitably, comes to the fore, following Claudio and Hero’s interrupted nuptials, it brings with it the few problematic points in an otherwise confident production.
Had the play been directed purely as farce, Beatrice’s demand that Benedick should “Kill Claudio!” could have been played purely for laughs. As Rourke has gone deeper under the skin of Shakespeare’s characters, this moment is rendered uncomfortable and tense, much like the wedding scene beforehand. It is all the better for it – but the menace, the exciting change of tone that these moments promise, is thrown away in order to get back to the business of being a traditional comedy.
All in all, though, this clearly isn’t intended to be a Peter Hall style tragic-comic re-imagining of Shakespeare’s merry war. It is ultimately a traditional production and a very good one at that, with great performances from the two leads. On top of that, it contains just enough subversive elements to hint at great things to come from the rest of Samuel West’s debut season.