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National Youth Theatre – Much Ado About Nothing

It’s a bold move to reposition Much Ado About Nothing from seventeenth-century Messina to a twenty-first-century island, which may or may not be Sicily. Setting a Bard play in the context of a reality television show, called ‘Nothing Island’, rankles the purists but also provides contemporary social commentary, both literally and figuratively. Alongside displays of social media comments and tweets, complete with the extremes of unfiltered putdowns and hero worship of various participants in the show, the themes of deception, love and the various meanings of ‘nothing’ are very much as evident as they would be in a more ‘traditional’ setting.

Much Ado About Nothing. NYT REP 2023. Helen Murray.
Much Ado About Nothing. NYT REP 2023. Helen Murray.

Balthazar’s ‘Sigh No More’ song in Act II Scene III has been adapted into an ensemble number that bookends the performance, a sort of theme tune to ‘Nothing Island’. Deception is portrayed by the shooting of the television show itself. Leonato (Jessica Enemokwu), Nothing Island’s executive producer (a reasonable equivalent, all things considered, of ‘governor of Messina’), issues instructions, which are adhered to. But as soon as she declares a wrap for the day, the heightened expressions and dramatic tension disappear. Audiences of reality television shows must have known for some years now that the edited broadcasts provide whatever perspective the producers think will keep ratings up and viewers interested. And still they watch.

When the Friar (Hannah Zoé Ankrah) is threatened with the sack if her plot in Act IV Scene I doesn’t work out, she is effectively risking that good old Shakespearean device foisted on many characters, banishment. But the Friar isn’t usually at risk of being ‘banished’, so in that respect, this production goes further than the original text. It’s hard-hitting in other ways when it wants to be – some in the audience gasped at the content of certain tweets posted by viewers of Nothing Island (they’re not repeatable, to be fair, and it’s no wonder some people have either cut down their social media use or deleted their profiles altogether).

As for Hero (Thuliswa Magwaza), she is, as her cousin and close friend Beatrice (Isolde Fenton) points out, “she is wronged, she is slandered, she is undone”. Characters are distinguished, in part, by Nothing Island jackets which have their names written on the back. Counts and princes share living quarters with what would have been attendants and messengers, though the class divide is only removed superficially. That anyone can establish themselves as a therapist, in the sense that there is no statutory registration for therapists in the UK, is a point gloriously underlined in the transformation of Dogberry and Verges from constables to counsellors. The soliloquies, meanwhile, are all scenes in ‘the diary room’.

I don’t know if this show is meant to be some kind of love letter to reality television or a hardcore parody of it, or both – Benedick (an engaging Daniel Cawley) and Beatrice are, as ever, convinced by the words of others that the other is very much in love with them, only to discover this is not the case, the rumour mill running wild. Don John (Jasmine Ricketts) endured trial by social media, although Don Pedro’s (Jack D’Arcy) making light of Don John being born illegitimately is one of the few instances where this production’s contemporary framework fails to make much impact – it goes without saying that not very many people these days would think less of a person purely because they were born outside marriage.

The production consistently and relentlessly very much feels like a television recording studio, with crew, makeup artists, runners and producers making frequent appearances. For the most part, it works. It could have done with an interval – condensing Shakespeare’s five acts into ninety minutes seemed very intense at times (and reality television shows have commercial breaks!). But it’s slick, it’s cutthroat and it’s gripping stuff.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Some Cupid kills with arrows, some with traps

Shakespeare’s much-loved comedy meets reality TV romance in a raucous and lyrical adaptation by poet and playwright Debris Stevenson (Poet in da Corner, Royal Court) at the iconic Duke of York’s Theatre in London’s West End. Josie Daxter (NYT alumna), who has worked extensively with The PappyShow and Complicite, playfully directs this modern-day love story as we go behind the cameras into a loved-up world of gossip, matchmaking and manipulation. Don’t miss some of Britain’s best young talent taking over the West End with 1000 £10 tickets on sale for this 10th anniversary NYT REP Company production.

Much Ado About Nothing
By William Shakespeare
Remixed by Debris Stevenson
Directed by Josie Daxter

Duke of York’s Theatre
7 Feb 2023 – 10 Feb 2023

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