Sarah Gibbs reviews Antic Disposition’s new adaptation of the Shakespearean classic, praising both the production’s respect to the original and its French additions.
I think I know why Baroness Hale is smiling. The amused expression that the head of the Supreme Court wears in her official portrait caused consternation when the work was unveiled last month. I suspect, however, that Lady Hale was simply enjoying rehearsals for Antic Disposition’s production of Much Ado About Nothing at Gray’s Inn Hall. Ben Horslen and John Risebero direct a talented cast that exploits the full potential of Shakespeare’s comedic set pieces and, in incorporating the physical comedy of French mime Jacques Tati, creates some of its own as well.
When the action opens, war is ended. It is 1945, and in the French village of Messina, Don Pedro breaks his homeward journey at the house of his friend, Leonato, who welcomes the General and his men, Benedick and Claudio. The latter conceives an immediate love for Leonato’s beautiful daughter, Hero, and a wedding is soon arranged. Meanwhile, Benedick encounters Beatrice, Leonato’s niece and his opponent in an ongoing battle of wits. While friends and relations conspire to bring the warring pair together, the General’s bastard brother, Don John, plans the overthrow of Claudio’s marriage. His charge that Hero is unfaithful puts all the lovers’ happiness in jeopardy.
The infinite adaptability of Shakespeare’s plays is due in part to their sparseness. The texts offer few stage directions, and details regarding setting are almost non-existent. All there is is language, and the language, in its richness, is all. So it feels a sort of sacrilege—like freestyling the catechism—to add to the dialogue. Antic Disposition’s brilliance is to supplement the text with another tongue. French is used in songs, pre-show sketches, and in Dogberry’s military drills following the interval. The use of a parallel discourse that is only selectively understood by audience members, and the funnier for it, ensures that Shakespeare’s comic brilliance is extended, rather than adulterated. The Tati-inspired interludes with the villagers and watchmen are superb. Louis Bernard and Scott Brooks as Dogberry and Verges, respectively, are a first-class comedy duo. Bernard’s hyperbolic physicality is a perfect match for Dogberry’s malaprop-laden dialogue, and Brooks, despite being nearly silent throughout, brings immense pathos to his waiter-cum-accordion-player-cum-watchman.
All Horslen and Risebero’s cast members are on point, and handle the production’s musical demands with aplomb. While Beatrice’s (Chiraz Aïch) bon mots are occasionally the victim of the banquet hall’s acoustics, the actors capitalize on the immersive staging, sitting with the audience at café tables and
hiding behind chairs to avoid other characters. Props and costumes are minimal but effective. Nicholas Osmond, double-cast as both Benedick and “watchman” Pierre, wears for the latter role a beret and painter’s smock that—with its buttons the size of fists—is a gag in itself.
That Antic Disposition has found the means to refresh an oft-staged comedy warrants much praise; cast and crew have fully earned their applause. If only the production’s Anglo-Gallic mirth could be released into the atmosphere over England, the UK and EU might, like Claudio and Hero, see their union saved.
Much Ado About Nothing can be caught at Gray’s Inn Hall until the 1st September, 2018.
Feature photograph: Scott Ryalnder