Productions of Shakespeare plays tend to fall into two categories nowadays; those which are slavishly faithful to text, period and traditional staging, and those which meddle gleefully with all three, to the point where the play becomes well-nigh unrecognisable.
Thankfully Wyrd Sisters manage to steer a course between the two, skilfully avoiding the Scylla and Charybdis of Tedium and Zaniness. They show their respect for The Bard by leaving the text untouched, whilst at the same time throwing in their own little personal touches which bring the tired old play back to fresh and sparkling life.
For a start, their casting is gender blind; they allocate roles based on suitability rather than sex, adjusting the character accordingly. I admit to a certain apprehension about this at the start of the play; was Claudio transformed into Claudia merely to shock, or to satisfy a certain element of prurience on the part of the audience or director during the scenes with Hero? No, not a bit of it. Freya Alderson was undeniably excellent in the role, and the whole subject was treated so naturally that I forgot all about it for long periods of the play. The technique actually served to enhance several relationships during the play; for example, what more natural than that Don John’s boon companion, Conrad, should actually be female and intimately involved with him? And turning Leonato into Leonata strengthened the parent/child relationship with Hero, and made the later denunciation even more terrible.
The place and period setting was slightly less successful; it is supposed to be set in a country manor in modern day England, with the soldiers coming back from a tour of Iraq. However, the Iraq connection was not made very clear, and the hippy, almost pagan atmosphere at the manor suggested the 1960s, which made it all the more surprising when people whipped out their mobile phones for a quick selfie. Nevertheless the set itself was very effective, serving as both interior and exterior by dint of some well-placed furniture and clever lighting. Despite the stage often being full of people it never appeared over-crowded, and the dance scenes were excellently choreographed.
Director Joanna Freeman has added some superb physical comedy and little personal devices to the play, which fit in so perfectly with the personality of each of the characters that one feels they must have been written in especially for them. David Paisley and Charlie Ryall are an unconventional Beatrice and Benedick – he all muscles, tattoos and broad Scottish accent, she a grungy, caustic rebel in slogan t-shirts – but none the worse for that. The two of them, both separately and apart, are intensely lovable, and their comedy timing is spot on. Lucy Green manages to flesh out the usually two-dimensional and rather drippy Hero into a funny, touching character, and Christina Balmer turns Leonato into Leonata so convincingly it is hard to imagine it having been written any other way. Paul Anthoney’s Don John glowers menacingly, and Edward Anderson actually makes a good stab at the redemption of his inherently wicked character Borachio; a scene which is usually so implausible as to be risible. There is not a lot you can do with the annoying Watch characters – in each production of Much Ado I desperately pray that their scenes will have been abridged, but thus far I have been disappointed – however, Wendy Morgan does the best that can be done with Dogberry.
The best thing about the production, which pervades the theatre from the moment you walk in, is the naturalness of it all. The speech flows freely, the actors relishing the words but never over-egging them, and the interaction between them all appears utterly genuine. Rarely have I seen a play which has been directed so tightly and precisely, and yet with such a light touch. The joyful, relaxed ambiance is also infectious; from the very beginning, when we find the group clearly in the middle of a party, we find ourselves wanting to join in with the revelry and merriment. They chat to us; we listen in rapt fascination. They grin at us; we beam back. In fact, by the end of the play the whole audience seemed to be one big smile. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Review by Genni Trickett
Fresh from a sell-out run of Shakespeare’s classic comedy, ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, at the New Wimbledon Studio, performed earlier this year as part of Illuminate Festival, Wyrd Sisters Theatre Company bring their unique interpretation of the play vividly to life a second time with a three-week run at the Drayton Arms Theatre, South Kensington.
Re-envisioned as a modern folk tale, complete with live music, selfies, morris dancing and occasional gender-bending, this ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ welcomes the audience into a leafy and cider-drenched vision of Messina, set deep in the rolling English hills.
Running time: Roughly 2 hours, plus a 20 minute interval | Suitable for ages 11+
Directed by Joanna Freeman Assistant Director Matt May
Producers Freya Alderson & Charlie Ryall
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Freya Alderson Claudia
Edward Anderson Borachio
Paul Anthoney Don John
Christina Balmer Leonata
Louise Goodfield Conrad
Lucy Green Hero
Claire-Monique Martin Balthasar
Wendy Morgan Dogberry (18th-29th August excluding Saturday matinees)
Stuart Murray Ursule/Friar Francis
Nicholas Oliver Don Pedro
David Paisley Benedick
Christie Peto Margaret
Charlie Ryall Beatrice
Roger Sansom Dogberry (1st-5th September plus matinees 22nd Aug & 29th Aug)
The Drayton Arms Theatre, 153 Old Brompton Road, London SW5 0LJ
Tues 18th August – Sat 5th September 8pm | Matinees on Saturdays 3pm