Review By Laura Heuston
In many ways, interactive Shakespearian comedy is the best form of Shakespeare. We see the Bard at his most accessible here, diving into the lighter universalities of life. Young love, obvious denial, spicy banter and losing our words completely- they happen to us all. And of course, betrayal, slander and a thirst for revenge. These unfortunately cross our paths too. We know that Shakespeare loves his dualities, and Bokkie Robertson (Director) presents us with the giddy highs and shattering lows of being swept away with newfound passion.
Our hearts revolve around the two couples of Much Ado; the bashful but swayable Claudio (Russell Cronin) and his sweet love Hero (Izabella Louk- Producer), in addition to her cousin, the whip-smart Beatrice (Dominique Purdue) and the proclaimed permanent bachelor Benedick (Levi Kenway). These roles are the emotional centre of the work, with Benedick and Beatrice providing much of the comedy, and Claudio and Hero, much of the tragedy. And these actors absolutely deliver everything these characters need to be.
Claudio and Hero; lifted so high in Act 1, only to be brought so low in Act 2. Our giddy darlings were set to be married after Captain Pedro (Nick Wright) artfully brought them together, wooing Hero on Claudio’s behalf. But Claudio has already shown that he is vulnerable to deception, and when he falls prey to it a second time the results are far more tragic. Cronin takes us from the starry-eyed lover to the guilt ridden villain in superb fashion, as while there can be no doubt that his actions were terrible, we can still manage to forgive him. His grief is as real as his love, and there can be no doubt that it is his earnestness that is his best, and worst, quality when it comes to Hero. Louk of course, is the other side of the equation- the wronged innocent- who went from a joyous bride to a fate some (cough cough, her father) would call worse than death. And I must give dramaturg Emily Dzioba credit- in this version of Much Ado, without giving too much away, Hero gets to assert her agency at the conclusion of the play. Louk does a wonderful job of portraying the typically submissive heroine with a strength of character that one rarely gets to see. It is perfectly suited to what one could argue is one of Shakespeare’s more feminist works.
The ones that have us in stitches however, are of course Benedick and Beatrice. Kenway and Purdue have undeniable chemistry from the second they appear on stage together, as it absolutely should be. Kenway presents us with Benedick, who has clearly had feelings for a while but is in adorable denial, while Purdue delivers a Beatrice with a more powerful bite. And why wouldn’t she be the spinier of the two? She has her reputation to protect, and as we see all too clearly, reputation is everything. But once the feelings are let out, oh boy do they take the stage. Passion- both in vengeance and in love- is behind the barbs of this Beatrice. Kenway however, presents us with a refreshingly soft touch in Benedick, which counteracts his supposed dismissal of women for the modern audience. Everyone sees through him immediately, so it’s actually really cute. Both actors must be applauded for how they build the tension throughout, as that final embrace feels like a triumph for the whole room.
The play is punctuated with backing music and shanties (composed by Ben Bauchet), giving us the real feel of the seaside tavern welcoming the soldiers back to land. Some of the chorus would have benefited from some singing training, however the strong voices carry across well despite the audience being in the midst of the actors. This interactiveness is naturally a source of much delight, with actors turfing audience members out of their chairs and borrowing some convenient props. The additional lines always add charm to the characters, and these performers know exactly how to get the audience onside. We root for the lovers, we despise the villains, and we mourn when the lines become blurred. It is a joyous production.