“Let wonder seem familiar” says Charlie De Melo’s magisterial Friar Francis, and Matthew Dunster’s superbly original production of Much Ado About Nothing at the Globe Theatre should be made familiar to as many people as possible. It’s wonderful. The steamy snort of a Mexican transport train starts it all, depositing the players before the Groundlings, straight out of the bloody peasant battles of Pancho Villa’s revolutionaries. His female rebels too though, those ‘Soldaderas’ of real history, sporting cartridge belts across their fiery breasts and giving a new voice to the women in the play.
So Mariachi music, big hats and the threat of maracas, sets your nerves slightly on edge too, wondering if everyone is about to break into a sonnet form of Mejicano. Caramba! No need for nerves, or indeed an over worthy respect for the classical either, in an evening that turns into a visual and sensual feast. This utterly joyous, superbly colourful production is so inventive, so alive and so mercurial too, yet so true to Shakespeare’s themes and the possibilities of what after all is a very peculiar and rather problematic play – in those macho and murderous soldier’s attacks on Hero and the rest – you want to pull down the wall, impeach Donald Trump and get back to loving one another, or at least going to the theatre.
Dunster takes big liberties, sure, because now the malevolent, near Deus-ex-machine figure of Don John is a girl, Don Pedro’s nasty sister, wait for it, Juanita. Gender issues then, whatever they are, (having read my Shakespeare), are on the slab again, to remind us of Dunster’s much praised and hugely popular version of Cymbeline, which he re-styled Inogen.
In fact, not having read the programme, thankfully, the Trump-Mexico-Wall frame, and Shakespeare uses the stitch-up term, with Dogs Berry the ‘watch’ in the form of Ewan Wardrop’s swaggering, idiotic film director for the American Mutual Film Corporation, which made a real deal with Villa to film the lot, did not become really apparent until the second half. When the hand cranked box-film cameras draped in US flags roll out and those poor beleaguered Mexicans all spit on stage at the filthy Americanos.
This production then, which never takes itself too seriously, is exactly the opposite of Dunster’s recent writing follies, with his adaptation of Dickens and A Tale Of Two Cities at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre (see review below). Perhaps a battle there with the director Timothy Sheader. Namely the modern reinvention is not bolt on, as it certainly is there, or tub-thumping either. Instead it’s a wonderfully cheeky and liberated comic conceit, born of pure instinct, but with thematic integrity behind it too, beautifully realised in Anna Fleischle’s sparkling designs, that frames and serves Shakespeare’s play perfectly and somehow frees up everyone, to both wonder and the familiar.
The actors are really allowed to get down to it then, or to double step floridly up to it, waving their Flamenco skirts at us and each other, or firing their six guns. The entire cast is superb, in a show that is all singing and dancing throughout. Well, an enchanting mix of clever new music by James Maloney, that serenades our swaying journey through that desperate kingdom of love, with nothing as clichéd as Mariachi, and some very beautifully sung ‘Shakespeare’ too.
As Dunster turns Aragon and Messina to Monterray and Durango and Dog Berry’s malapropisms become arrogant American mistranslations, mis-hearings or misunderstandings. Which are also the mistranslations of romantic movies themselves, or the desire to play it heroic. Much Ado About Noting, the title may have been, noting being false rumour and gossip, which sets the stage beautifully for the black and white film footage, in an age before the talkies, that reveals the truth and reminds you the camera never lies, except in Hollywood.
Of course the play belongs to Beatrice and Benedick, smutty pun intended, performed with such feeling and fiery wit by Beatriz Romilly and Matthew Needham, who Dunster has directed before, to engage us in that ‘Merry War’ of the sexes. Steve John Shephard is gorgeously arch and wickedly moustachioed as the potentially ambivalent Don Pedro, that patriarchal master of ceremonies and masks, supported valiantly by Marcelo Cruz’s excellent Claudio and Martin Marquez as a Leonato straight out of the Mendoza family in The High Chaparral. But at last the women come centre stage and with Doreen Blackstock’s whip-cracking attack on the men seated on their mimed horses as Antonia, never again so easily dismissed either.
In this version too, with a dramatic shift towards female power, or nascent revolution, in Villas’ case thwarted and betrayed, yet set against the perpetually comic, almost Fist-Full-of-Dollars backdrop, Much Ado takes on a new pathos and a strange new symmetry too. Suddenly all the ironies, knots and limitations of this threateningly misogenistic soldiers’ play find a united thread, because a woman is liberated into malevolence too, in Juanita, the war out there joining with the war within, in a true dance of lovers. So clarifying just why the magician Shakespeare, working within the mores and male structure of his time, forces Anya Chalotra’s lovely Hero, a name of course ripe with heroic male connotations and hypocracies, to die for love and be reborn, or Claudio to publically mourn her, in the search for his magic and often revolutionary resolutions.
In that the religious context of the play, and Shakespeare’s own peculiar sanctity too, that ‘poet of marriage’ as Germaine Grier called him, is served beautifully by the hyper Catholic-Mexican period framing, the clever and beautiful tying-of-the-knot already undone, and the cult of the Virgin too, though Shakespeare’s is the cult of love.
I found myself wondering too why men on stilts, with wire horse heads out of War Horse, or pistols fired at tin cans leaping like cucarachas, should so bring a sixteenth century play to life. One reason is that it’s just such fun, those train doors and windows used to lovely comic effect. But the other is that in the setting of the Globe, all the space used too, it’s almost as if you’ve stepped back five hundred years to that age of players and musicians, and that extraordinarily odd but also liberated time, linguistically and even socially, that breathes out of Shakespeare’s utterly instinctive genius. It is pure directorial instinct too, serving the writer, and the actors, that has made this such a triumphant success.
David Clement-Davies went to Much Ado About Nothing courtesy of the Globe Theatre. The production runs until October 15h . For tickets Click Here