A dark, dangerous Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing: William Shakespeare, Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds: until Saturday, February 2 A whimpering hooded prisoner, a condemned man, is brought on stage.

Ivan Howlett

Much Ado About Nothing: William Shakespeare, Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds: until Saturday, February 2

A whimpering hooded prisoner, a condemned man, is brought on stage. With the callousness of civil war conflict his captor coldly shoots him in the head.

That's the opening Red Shift Theatre gives for a challenging reading of Shakespeare's Much Ado. Director Jonathan Holloway sets the action against the brutality of 1990s Sarajevo. His is an interval free, hour-and-a-half adaptation for six actors.


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Red Shift shows us, if not exactly wartime love, then certainly love against a social backcloth of brutality and violence - where, to go near too near the sandbags will draw the rattle of a sniper's gunfire.

Holloway's other big stylistic take is his use of a cabaret style approach, with lights, instruments, amplifiers, microphones, set up in a performance clearing amid the destruction.

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The cabaret uses the actor-musicians to play and sing Sarah Llewellyn's clever Balkan folk themes (contrasting with the brash crackling of rock music through a radio). This all drives things along, allows the actors to manage their potentially confusing character switches and to speak with the raw energy that the production intends.

There are some very good performances here. Dean Lepley (as Benedick, and also Borachio) has a good presence and speaks his Shakespeare well and the relationship with Beatrice (Rebecca Pownall) develops well in the later stages .

If there's a star of what is an ensemble production it is Simon Spencer-Hyde's performance as Dogberry. In a sudden switch from his main role as Claudio, he gives a brilliant clown performance as the inept incompetent and incoherent officer who discovers the plotting and reverses the play's seemingly inevitable move towards tragedy. His act is crammed full of cane and hat tricks, trips - music-hall visual gags galore - culminating in his getting his head trapped in the plastic strips that line the set.

We can understand though not endorse Claudio's gullibility which, in a violent tense world, leads him to distrust everything, even the fidelity of Hero (Fflur Medi Owen). That whole episode, with Chris Porter's slimy Don Pedro and villainous Don John, works quite well.

In his programme note Jonathan Holloway says of Much Ado that 'in the right hands it can be funny'. He's surely talking Shakespeare down. It is funny, exquisitely and wickedly so. Holloway explores the dark corners of the play very well. I'd have wished for a bit more comic light.

Ivan Howlett

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