At Bard on the Beach until September 23, 2017
Tickets from $21 at bardonthebeach.org/604-739-0559
Posted June 20, 2017
If you’re looking for a fresh take on Much Ado About Nothing, director John Murphy is your man. The action is still in Messina but it’s no longer the 16th century. It’s 1959 and the heyday of Italian filmmaking. The characters are almost all associated with the film industry: Leonato (Andrew Wheeler) is head of a film studio; Don Pedro (Ian Butcher) is a famous director about to blow into town. Beatrice (Amber Lewis), Hero (Parmiss Sehat), Claudio (Julien Galipeau) and Benedick (Kevin MacDonald) are all film stars.
It’s all very La Dolce Vita (Fellini’s iconic 1960 film) but it’s about to go very sour. Don John is now, in Murphy’s reworking of the text, Don Pedro’s sister Dona Johnna (Laara Sadiq). Consumed with envy for anyone else’s happiness, Dona Johnna conspires to turn Claudio and Hero’s newfound bliss into blister.
With a tip of the hat to Fellini, Murphy starts the play off in what is virtually black and white: costumes (Christine Reimer), set design (Pam Johnson) and props. It’s all very slick and stylish and so cool. Through the open tent at the back, English Bay and the North Shore mountains look completely surreal in contrast to all that black and white.
Gradually, as the romances ramp up, colour is introduced.
Of course, the text is considerably altered with phrases like “on time and under budget”, “sound track”, and “Action!”. But the best of the bard is still there and the verbal sparring between Beatrice and Benedick – sworn never to love, never to marry – is entertainingly abrasive with Beatrice scoring the most hits.
The Benedick/Beatrice relationship is at the heart of Much Ado and within the context of the movie-making community – plagued with affairs, breakups and divorce – Beatrice and Benedick’s cynicism makes sense. When Leonato says Beatrice will never be “mad” with love, she replies, “No, not ‘til a hot January”. As for Benedick, he tells everyone, “I will live a bachelor”. It takes trickery to get these two together.
There are problems in the play that must be overlooked to make it work: Hero’s father and her would-be groom Claudio turn on Hero and cast her out on very slight evidence that she is “a contaminated stale”. One minute she is celebrated as purity itself; the next she is little better than a whore. The other problem, as written by Shakespeare, is that early in the play Benedick is a bit of a lightweight and not a great match for clever boots Beatrice. Fortunately, in this production, MacDonald gains stature later in the play and we are willing to concede that although they will be constantly sniping at each other, they are well matched.
Never much one for the various fools in Shakespeare’s play, I did find Ashley O’Connell’s Dogberry pretty funny with the character’s insistence on it being noted that he has been called “an ass”.
And while I had some early reservations about Don John becoming Dona Johnna, Laara Sadiq, in a startling blond, smooth wig, is as wicked as any Don John. Her walk, her stance, everything about her is nasty and edgy. Gone, however, is the understandable jealousy the bastard Don John has for his legitimate brother. Replacing that is anger that, being a woman, she has not had the career opportunities her brother has had.
There’s music: David Adams sings, in Italian, a song that eventually gets to “Hey nonny nonny”. There’s dance: Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg choreographs everything from jive to a hot and sexy tango. It’s all very handsome, hugely entertaining and a great kickoff to the 2017 Bard on the Beach season.