Love is rarely uncomplicated and often rife with hilarity. This is the case with William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, the world’s original romantic comedy. The Bell Shakespeare Company have honed the comedic flavour of this 16th century play with their new touring production of the show, packed with enough farcical slapstick and witty banter to fill an entire Richard Curtis movie.
The story revolves around the impossible love of Beatrice and Benedick. Impossible not because of terrible hardship or quarrelling families; impossible because they can’t stand each other. Zindzi Okenyo as Beatrice and Duncan Ragg as Benedick spit harsh witticisms and deliver insulting burns to each other with perfect delivery. Not a word of their repartee was missed and each clever insult was met with everything from a snigger to rapturous laughter from the audience.
The relationship of Beatrice and Benedick can make or break a production. Thankfully, the chemistry between Okenyo and Ragg is believable as both display a more subtle method of modernising Shakespeare. The characters may remind you of two mates who refuse to get together despite their constant flirting, rather than mortal enemies – as is usually the case with this unlikely pair.
As a modern Shakespeare adaption, it ticks all the boxes to make the story as accessible as possible while still retaining the language of the original text. Visually, things are spiced up with a tropical backdrop accompanied by numerous pot plants for characters to hide behind. And would it even be a modern Shakespeare adaptation if it didn’t include a Top 40 chart dance number towards the beginning?
Many of the actors tended to double up too. Vivienne Awosoga portrays both Hero, the aim of Claudio’s desires, and the criminal Conrade, decked out in brightly coloured sportswear and shades; a dual role I would not have noticed if the program had not informed me otherwise.
The rest of the cast support the show excellently. Mandy Bishop’s gender-bent Dogberry, head of the dipstick watchmen, was a delightfully absurdist take on a character who trades in over-exaggerated pouty faces and silly expressions while inexplicably riding about the stage on a small scooter. Also, the ‘bro culture’ present between Danny Ball’s portrayal of the suave Don Pedro and Will McDonald’s emotionally strained Claudio goes from being outright hilarious to foreshadowing the more sinister events to come.
The darker tones of Much Ado About Nothing are explored in full force here. Seemingly at odds with the absurdist humour of the rest of the play, the ominous themes of infidelity and gender inequality are presented with dignity and never find themselves overshadowing the comedic side of the show.
Laughing is what audiences will be doing all across the country as this adaptation tours across Australia for the rest of the year. Here in Melbourne, be the first to fall in love with the biting quips of Beatrice and Benedick’s endearing awkwardness, just like your favourite rom-com couple.
Bell Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is playing at Arts Centre Melbourne until July 27. Tickets are available at the venue website here.