Bell Shakespeare’s production of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ adapts it for the modern age

Bell Shakespeare’s production of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ adapts it for the modern age

Much Ado About Nothing
Photo: Pierre Toussaint
Words by Augustus Welby

Bell Shakespeare are launching a brand new production of Much Ado About Nothing this month, kicking off with 12 performances in Arts Centre Melbourne’s Fairfax Studio.

The eminent Australian theatre company previously staged the Shakespearean comedy in 1996, 2000 and 2011. Those who’ve never read the play or witnessed a theatrical rendition might be familiar with the work courtesy of Kenneth Branagh’s early-‘90s film adaptation.

The legacy and level of grandeur associated with this sort of project could place the cast members under additional pressure. But Zindzi Okenyo – who plays Beatrice in the James Evans-directed production – thinks the widespread familiarity could be useful for getting audiences to face up to the play’s more problematic elements.

“When you show it in 2019, you do have to address quite a few different things to continue to make it relevant,” she says, “and also, audiences are expecting different things. So I think it’s a great position to be in because a lot of people will be like, ‘This isn’t what I expected’ or ‘it’s better than I expected’. It’s an opportunity to help people see the play through a different prism.”

Every time a new crew takes on Shakespeare, the work will change. The director and performers can’t help but apply some interpretive influence and the look of the play will alter. This makes it impossible to do an entirely faithful re-creation, but Evans hasn’t deviated too far from the original text.

“There’s been quite a few cuts, but only to streamline the duration of the show and just make it a little clearer, but not really with the language or the script at all,” Okenyo says. “It’s more about how we frame it. For me, a huge thing with this play in particular is that the men behave really terribly and I think that you can’t ignore that.”

Much Ado is equal parts comedy and tragedy, but it’s generally framed as just a comedy. Although the comedic elements remain, Okenyo says this version fleshes out the true substance of the tragedy.

“These days, if you don’t address how the men behave, I feel that’s pretty irresponsible because of all the conversations that we now have and all the language we have around articulating these experiences with toxic masculinity and the way the world is shaped.

“I was interested in doing this play because of those problems, and the way that we are framing the production is to definitely not shy away from shining a light on those issues.”

Judging by the press information, order of the credits and accompanying photographs, Okenyo’s Beatrice is the play’s central character. Beatrice is one of Shakespeare’s strongest women and she possesses incredibly contemporary values.

“James and I were talking about how she’s almost outside of the play,” says Okenyo. “She’s so a woman of our times in terms of her feminism, in terms of how she just bucked up against the system, but also in terms of how comfortable she is in herself and quite joyful.”

Vivienne Awosoga takes the role of Hero, the character at the centre of the narrative events. Okenyo nominates Hero as the play’s true star.

“I think the reason that it hasn’t been seen that way in the past is that Hero pretty much says nothing. We’ve repurposed a few things to give her more agency, but still she’s quite silent throughout the play.

“All the terrible stuff happens to her. No one really asks how she’s doing or what’s going on or her opinion or what she wants to do. Her life is really planned out by the men around her and she’s kind of bandied around. I think the wedding and where’s she’s essentially slut shamed is the real crux of the play.”

Much Ado About Nothing will be performed at Arts Centre Melbourne’s Fairfax Studio from Wednesday July 17 to Saturday July 27 (bar Monday). Grab your tickets via the Arts Centre website.