Friday, July 6, 2012

Much Ado: Stratford Festival’s Much Ado About Nothing

Ben Carlson and Deborah Hay in Much Ado About Nothing at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

I usually shy away from productions of Shakespeare that transpose the original Elizabethan setting to something contemporary or even exotic. And don’t even get me started on cross-dressing versions of King Lear or Hamlet. I mean, why bother? I understand the need for relevancy. But to my mind Shakespeare doesn’t need improving. If he did, his works wouldn’t have lasted more than 500 years. They are perfect specimens of the English language, timeless works of art that are also time capsules capturing the spirit and values of Renaissance England, Shakespeare’s own epoch. And so I found myself frowning when, during a recent visit to Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival, I began reading director Christopher Newton’s program notes for Much Ado About Nothing which is at the Festival Theatre through to Oct. 27. In those notes, Newton (formerly of the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake) happily declared his love of Brazil, circa 1889, the year the country’s last emperor, Dom Pedro II, abdicated and was forced into exile. Say what? Rhapsodizing about palm trees and sandy beaches, anti-slavery laws and samba schools, Newton went on to say that Brazil was where he had decided to place his version of Much Ado About Nothing, larding it with sexy mulatos. I thought, get me outta here. I seriously considered making a run for it, and was already contemplating how I could leap over the row of sensible shoes (a bus full of senior citizens had decamped on the Festival Theatre for the night) in which I was planted, dead in the middle, without causing alarm. But then the lights dimmed low and there I was, bound for Brazil by way of Elizabethan England, certain I would hate every minute of the bumpy ride.

But surprise, surprise. When the action began, bathed in the honey-coloured tones of Robert Thomson’s South American-inspired lighting design, I felt myself yielding to Newton’s Portuguese-inflected staging, like a corsage orchid to the sun. Also inviting was Santo Loquasto’s late 19th-century Brazilian villa set design, dominated by an interior sweeping staircase with Azulejos floor tiles, a setting that felt warm, intimate and seductive. I was already happy to be spending time there. Its sun-kissed colours were a balm on the eyes. It didn’t take long to see that the relaxed vibe of the visual design suited a play that, while bracketed by images of war, is preoccupied with finding peace. I felt myself relax in the presence of this oasis of calm. It was obviously that Newton was not as wilfully contrarian as I had first suspected. He was definitely onto something. 

Director Christopher Newton
That light hand extended also to his handling of the text, interpreted with clarity and purpose, its various meanings shining forth brilliantly from behind the shadows which Shakespeare appears deliberately to have created when he first wrote the play around 1598 or 1599 (after Romeo and Juliet, but before Twelfth Night, works that similarly use the conceit of lies to draw out truth). The play is beyond complex, but Newton manages to tame its violent edges, but subtly so, like a man in a white suit fanning himself outside on a veranda who is careful not to let anyone see him perspire. He writes that he’s dreaming of Brazil, and while it sounds like folly, there is method to his madness. He appears to know that Shakespearean theatre is a journey, and has created his own ticket for discovering its hidden wonders. 

First stop, the title. By calling it Much Ado About Nothing Shakespeare was clearly having the audience on. That nothing is, in fact, something quite big – the undoing of a lady’s honour, which, in Elizabethan times (and presumably also late 19th-century Brazil), was a social crime so weighty, it could destroy whole families, let alone a woman wronged. In this case, that woman is Hero (Bethany Jillard), the good and God-fearing daughter of Leonato (James Blendick) who opens his home to a victorious band of soldiers recently returned from war. Their commander is Don Pedro (Juan Chioran), a benevolent leader soul and would-be matchmaker who brokers the engagement between his comrade-in-arms, Claudio (Tyrone Savage), and Hero while Don Pedro’s churlish brother, Don John (Garth Potter), a bitter loser of the war just passed, does all in his power to destroy love at every turn.

Second stop, the plot thickens. As in all Shakespearean drama, the themes and characters of the main plot are mirrored (both positively and negatively) and elaborated on by those in the secondary. Thus, Don John is Don Pedro’s foil and his gang of thugs is meant to be seen as being opposite in nature to the collegial fraternity of soldiers Don Pedro gathers around him wherever he goes. Similarly, Hero and Claudio have doppelgangers in the persons of long-percolating adversaries Benedick (Ben Carlson) and Beatrice (Deborah Hay). While Claudio and Hero experience love at first sight, Benedick and Beatrice taunt each other with a fierce battle of wits. Ironically, these sworn enemies find a way to bridge the gender gap between them while the lovers are pulled apart by vicious rumour and innuendo that has Hero cast as a whore on her wedding day – a shame so devastating it appears to kill her. Seeing is never believing in this play and so, to paraphrase from another of the Bard’s great works, all’s well that ends well. Death is not final. Love is reborn in the form a resurrection rising out of forgiveness. Much Ado About Nothing is a comedy that nearly becomes tragedy that ends in a double wedding.

The set of Stratford`s Much Ado About Nothing
Third stop, Brazil. Those weddings take place amid great merriment. The players sing and dance the samba which at first seems incongruous, especially given the many references in the play to Messina and Milan which suggests Shakespeare intended the action to be taking place somewhere in Italy. But by this point all questions of quote-unquote authenticity have long since flown out the theatre door, assisted by a batacuda rhythm no less. Newton’s samba Shakespeare works largely because it is easy to roll with, much like the dance itself. Coming from the Shaw Festival where he specialized in revitalizing Shavian drawing room dramas, Newton has here liberated himself from traditional readings of the Bard, imposing on him not just a deliberately sunny disposition but also an energy born from a genuine zest for life. The actors respond in kind, performing their respective roles with delighted conviction. It’s a real pleasure watching them. Yes, Newton has deceived us: he has set the play in Recife, which Shakespeare probably never even heard of, on a plantation staffed with peasants with swaying hips and exposed six-packs, which never would have stepped syncopated foot on the Renaissance stage, and at one point – I swear – the entire cast can be heard singing something jazzy and tuneful by Antonio Carlos Jobim. Elsewhere, Jonathan Monro’s score evokes Brazil at the end of the 19th century.

Finally, home. If this all seems to strike a wrong note, remember that Much Ado About Nothing, as Shakespeare originally wrote it, is loaded with deceptions (that’s the central theme), so, as I said before, Newton is onto something: By lying (stylistically speaking), he has happily revealed the truth of this play as a work whose message of love transcends all time zones and borders. I for one condone his cheating heart. It enabled me to see Shakespeare in a whole new (Brazilian enhanced) light. Muito obrigado.

 Deirdre Kelly is a journalist (The Globe and Mail) and internationally recognized dance critic. Her latest book, Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, will be published in Canada on October 6, 2012, followed by a US release two weeks later. Her first book,Paris Times Eight, is a national best-seller.

1 comment:

  1. Great review and glad you liked the show. I haven't seen it yet. You must try and see The Matchmaker, it's my favourite so far this season.