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Much Ado About Nothing at Theatre Royal Stratford East

Much Ado is about as classic as a Shakespearean comedy gets, there’s mistaken identity, devious plots, and faked death. Robert Hastie’s new production puts accessibility front and centre, incorporating BSL and captioning from start to finish.

Guy Rhys (Benedick) and Daneka Etchells (Beatrice) in Much Ado About Nothing. Photo by Johan Persson.
Guy Rhys (Benedick) and Daneka Etchells (Beatrice) in Much Ado About Nothing. Photo by Johan Persson.

We look in on a Scandinavian-style dining room behind glass sliding windows, which opens onto a clearing in a forest where much of our action takes place. This aggressively modernized adaptation kicks off with a lengthy introduction in contemporary English giving those who cannot see the descriptions of everyone’s clothes, and who will be signing for who. It is great to see access being placed at the core of how a company approaches a classic text and while at times this meant for somewhat clunky and cumbersome staging, I think that’s the point. I think Hastie and Emma Howlett (BSL Director) are making a point of catering primarily to an audience with a disability, and I give them credit for this.

After this perhaps Brechtian introduction, we got on with the comedy at hand. But even then, this production took a while to get going, acting was frequently over the top, which is partly excusable given that the production went for that exaggerated cartoonish take we see on Shakespeare a lot at the moment. When it did settle into itself and let Shakespeare’s text come through there were some moments of real comedy. The headline acts Beatrice (Daneka Etchells) and Benedick (Guy Rhys) both had their moments, but their relationship lacked the playful jiving that makes their enemies-to-lovers story so fun. On the whole the ensemble did a decent job, but often they had been directed in such a way that their acting looked at odds with each other, as though they were performing in different interpretations.

I was really excited looking at the design. As someone who takes a layman’s interest in architecture and interior design, the Scandinavian look got me excited, but it felt underused. Lighting was quite straightforwardly used, and we got a rather interesting approach to sound design, music was American country, and occasionally a mysterious voice floated through the audience giving us a plot that needed explaining.

This all seems rather harsh, I enjoyed it. Plot and tone shifts came a little quickly, and the comedy it did strike upon was good, but I would have loved to see it taken further. The climax of the play was played with grave seriousness where there is definitely more room for farce and low comedy. That being said, the actors had a great rapport with the audience, sharp comedic timing and developed great energy. But most notable was the reconfiguring of experience to focus primarily on those who have access requirements and this is something we need to see more of.

3 Star Review

Review by Tom Carter

Besotted young couple Claudio and Hero have fallen fast and are quickly engaged. Not everyone finds romance so straightforward – Benedick balks at the very thought of it and Beatrice agrees with him, on that if nothing else. But somewhere in this world, there’s someone for everyone, even if they’re right under your nose.

Shakespeare’s raucous comedy is directed by Robert Hastie (Coriolanus, A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Every performance features the use of integrated creative sign language, audio description and captioning. Ramps On The Moon is the pioneering initiative committed to putting deaf and disabled artists and audiences at the centre of their work.

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Robert Hastie
Designer Peter McKintosh
British Sign Language Director Emily Howlett
Audio Description Director Chloë Clarke
Lighting Designer Ian Scott
Composer John Biddle
Sound Designer Sam Glossop
Casting Director Jacob Sparrow
Assistant Director Alexandra Whiteley
Captioning Co-ordinator Cara Lawless
British Sign Language Consultant Brian Duffy
British Sign Language Interpreter (Lead) Emma Dawber

Much Ado About Nothing
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Robert Hastie
Tuesday 01 November, 7.30pm
Theatre Royal Stratford East, Gerry Raffles Square, London, E15 1BN

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