by John Lombard
Canberra Theatre, 11 October (on until 19 October)
Director James Evans begins Much Ado About Nothing at the end, with Claudio (Will McDonald) lifting the veil of his bride to discover an apparently resurrected Hero (Vivienne Awosoga).
By getting the happy ending out of the way, Evans tells us that our interest should not be the plot’s resolution, but instead how and why these innocent lovers tumble to a bittersweet fate.
Set design by Pip Runciman evokes a secure resort in an exotic location, a compound where the monied can shed care over cocktails without mixing too much with the locals.
In this setting, Don Pedro (Danny Ball) and his coterie did not feel like victorious soldiers, but like drug-running CIA agents on furlough.
Evans’ directorial focus is on the locker room antics of smug men at play: Don Pedro is a himbo, Benedick (Duncan Ragg) wants nothing more than to savour his tank magazine, and villains Borachio and Conrade are wannabe macho braggarts.
By contrast, the women are dignified. Awosoga is secure as Hero, Suzanne Pereira is a fountainhead of wisdom as the Sexton, and Zindzi Okenyo plays Beatrice as a commander and custodian of justice.
With Beatrice composed, Duncan Ragg as Benedick is free to unleash antic neurosis, yelping frantic accusations and squirming with delicious cowardice. Benedick’s eavesdropping scene is a comic highlight and the point where the actors find their stride, sloughing observation comedy to embrace absurdist madness.
Mandy Bishop’s cheery porn cop Dogberry also charmed, as did the ragtag militia, but the comedy was dominated by Ragg’s man-on-a-ledge Benedick.
The production has some unconventional doubling of parts, in particular, Will McDonald playing both Claudio and Borachio, a pairing that forces the actor to change roles mid-scene. Mostly, bold costume cues kept the characters clear, although some minor parts blended to create uncertainty.
With time and place fuzzy, the play felt unmoored from a context that would explain the characters’ values. Tweaks to placate the taste of a modern audience had the shock of the feminist slap Hero now plants on Claudio.
While the production is less vibrant and bombastic than other interpretations that seize on the comedy, Evans’ thoughtful stance shows how misogyny can corrode love’s first flush of joy.
Rather than a lusty Scotch jig, this production of Much Ado About Nothing is a mannerly measure.
Tickets and details at canberratheatrecentre.com.au