Chris Starkie as the night constable Dogberry: ‘I am an ass, though it be not written down’
How much better is it to weep at joy than to joy at weeping.
– Leonato, Much Ado About Nothing, Act 1, scene 1
This is the trouble with inviting the Globe Theatre to perform Shakespeare outdoors in Calderstones Park: the local groundlings lurk in trees and bushes, ruffians and scoundrels the lot of them, cackling and chattering so loudly you can hardly follow the bard’s dialogue.
On a warm summer’s evening the birds of Calderstones were rightly, and joyously, vociferous. But their contribution only enhanced the agreeable atmosphere engendered by watching what is, perhaps, Shakespeare’s most feelgood play, Much Ado About Nothing, presented by eight versatile actors from the Globe Theatre on tour.
An Elizabethan-style booth stage had been set up in the garden behind the Mansion House and there was soon a Glyndebourne-style atmosphere as the audience assembled, armed with folding chairs, waterproofs and rugs (not needed on this balmy evening). Then out came the strawberries and cream, the cava and the nibbles as the crowd settled down for the two hours of comedy, repartee and verbal wit that Much Ado affords.
An engaging and successful performance of Much Ado will depend especially on the electricity generated by the actors playing Benedick and Beatrice (‘They never meet, but there is a skirmish of wit between them’). As someone who was totally seduced by the sparks that flew between Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson in Branagh’s 1994 version filmed in a golden Tuscany, I wondered how the Globe troupe would hold up. I need not have worried.
Benedick: What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living?
Beatrice: Is it possible disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick? Courtesy itself must convert to disdain, if you come in her presence.
In this touring Globe Theatre production the tall and slender Emma Pallant is paired with Simon Bubb’s self-opinionated Benedick, scornful of love and marriage. The warring couple have at least one thing in common: they are both dedicated to dissembling and rapid-fire repartee.
In our last conflict four of his five wits went halting off, and now is the whole man governed with one: so that if he have wit enough to keep himself warm, let him bear it for a difference between himself and his horse; for it is all the wealth that he hath left, to be known a reasonable creature.
– Beatrice, scene 1
Simon Bubb as Benedick
Beatrice and Benedick are such a strong pair of personalities that they might leave other characters in the shade. But all eight members of the cast (performing multiple parts) make this truly an ensemble piece, with the comedy and drama undiluted, even when the sparring duo are off-stage. The versatile cast swap roles, costumes and musical instruments with tremendous verve. Music and dance enliven the drama as the cast deploy a range of instruments – accordion, guitar, trombone – to provide a Renaissance party atmosphere, especially in the masked banquet scene.
A Renaissance party atmosphere in the masked banquet scene
It’s easy to forget that the Beatrice and Benedick storyline is a subplot that has taken over the play. At the heart of this romantic comedy is the darker story of Claudio and Hero, the young couple brought together by Don Pedro, prince of Aragon before being torn apart by the prince’s villainous brother, Don John.
Gemma Lawrence does her best with the quiet and gentle Hero who has the fewest lines of the four primary characters, while Sam Phillips is suitably gauche and immature as Claudio, who falls in love with Hero over the course of one silent meeting, can’t even court her on his own, and then resigns her entirely at the hint that she might like Don Pedro better.
Emma Pallant as Beatrice and Robert Pickavance as her uncle Leonato
Dogberry, the comically incompetent night constable with an unremitting tendency to abuse the English language, is played by Chris Starkie (who also doubles as Don John). The scenes with Dogberry and his band of watchmen are hilarious, and – I think, unusually in a Shakespeare play – essential to the forward movement of the play. Dogberry fulfils an important role in the plot, bringing Don John’s treachery into the light of day, as well as lightening the enveloping darkness that follows Hero’s supposed death in what is, after all, intended as a comedy. It’s Dogberry who brings Borachio before Don Pedro to confess how Don John incited him to slander and disgrace Hero – as Dogberry explains in his inimitable manner:
Marry, sir, they have committed false report;
moreover, they have spoken untruths;
secondarily, they are slanders;
sixth and lastly, they have belied a lady;
thirdly, they have verified unjust things;
and, to conclude, they are lying knaves.
Dogberry and his watchmen
Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more;
Men were deceivers ever;
One foot in sea and one on shore,
To one thing constant never;
Then sigh not so,
But let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny;
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into. Hey nonny, nonny.
Reflecting on this ostensibly sunny play, it’s interesting how dark it gets at times (for instance, with Benedick swearing to kill Claudio), the part which deception plays in it. There is the self-deception of Benedick and Beatrice, who deceive themselves into believing they feel nothing for each other, and then are both tricked into believing the other is in love with them. Ultimately, their marriage is the result of all this deception. There is more deception when Don Pedro offers to woo Hero on Claudio’s behalf, and then there is the deception instigated by Don John intended to frustrate Claudio’s marriage to Hero by ruining her reputation.
Emma Pallant as Beatrice and Gemma Lawrence as Hero
In the excellent programme that accompanies the production there is an interesting essay by John F Cox that explains how, at the beginning of the 20th century, two different productions of Much Ado profoundly influenced modern Shakespearian production by rejecting the pictorial realism of Victorian productions in favour of simpler staging and faster-paced productions.
Cox writes that ‘anticipating practice at today’s Globe, these productions returned to staging Shakespeare in the manner of Elizabethan theatre, with an apron stage for audience rapport, an absence of realistic set scenery, continuous action with no scene breaks, and Renaissance music played on traditional instruments. All these elements were present in this production by the Globe, with highlights being the uproariously funny eavesdropping scenes, achieved without elaborate staging: a few boxes of oranges or a wet washing line being all that was needed to represent the hiding places in which conversations could be overheard.
The Globe Theatre came to Calderstones at the invitation of the Reader Organisation which also organized last year’s sell out production of King Lear and re-established the Garden Theatre as a venue, after having taken over the Mansion House to develop their International Centre for Reading and Wellbeing to provide a home for the Reader Organisation where they offer educational and literary courses, reading holidays, well-being breaks for carers and many more activities.
- Much Ado About Nothing in Calderstones Park: review at thepublicreviews
- King Lear on a summer evening in Calderstones park