*** (3 stars)
Illyria are celebrating thirty years on the road bringing a wide variety of shows – ranging from Wind in the Willows to Gilbert & Sullivan to Shakespeare – and last night they braved hey ho! the wind, but thankfully not the rain, to bring the good folk of the Honest Toun their current Shakespeare play, Much Ado About Nothing.
Beatrice hates Benedick, who hates Beatrice – there’s a hint that in the past they felt rather differently about each other. Benedick’s new bestie, Claudio, loves Hero and she him. Don Pedro fancies Hero but offers to plead on Claudio’s behalf both with Hero and her father, Leonato. The four of them decide it would be a brilliant joke to convince Beatrice and Benedick that each is desperately in love with the other. Don Pedro’s evil bastard [literally] brother Don John decides to have some fun and convince Claudio and Leonato that Hero is unfaithful. When she is accused at her wedding ceremony, she faints – but it is announced that she is dead. Claudio is remorseful, but it’s only when Don John’s accomplices are overheard laughing about the success of the plot that the truth is uncovered: meanwhile, Beatrice and Benedick realise that they really do love each other. Claudio and Hero are reunited and almost everyone is happy – apart, probably, from Don John.
The play has twenty characters: Illyria gave us five actors presenting – an impressive feat requiring many rapid exits and nifty costume changes with, at times, one actor voicing the part while another embodied it. Nicola Foxfield had the mammoth task of playing both Beatrice and Claudio, while Rachel O’Hare was Hero, Leonato’s brother, one of Don Pedro’s friends, and Dogberry, constable of the Watch and major comic relief. Chris Laishley [Leonato], David Sayers [Benedick] and Chris Wills [Don Pedro] were equally vocally versatile and gender-fluid.
The simple set not only allowed the cast to ascend a balcony [very convenient for overhearing things] but also to emerge through curtains underneath it – sometimes the whole person, sometimes merely the head, in some new guise. The costumes were equally versatile – white shirt/ black trousers and some gorgeous waistcoats, over which frocks of varying degrees of splendour could be donned as needed.
Composer Oliver Gray’s music was lovely – I particularly liked Sigh no more, ladies with its ukulele accompaniment, and the wonderful five-part dirge lamenting Hero’s death. The cast were also lively dancers, managing to move through complex patterns while maintaining a lively, fast-paced dialogue.
Why wouldn’t I give this well-presented and amusing show four stars? Well, had I not been very familiar with Joss Whedon’s black and white film version, I could have found it hard working out what was going on. The cast changed their accents and their costumes but still looked sufficiently familiar to make identifying new characters challenging. One character having to exit to allow another’s entrance added further confusion to some scenes. I also found it disconcerting to have characters facing us while having conversations with others behind them – though I appreciate that this was necessary behaviour in an outdoor setting where words really needed to carry [and be heard above the wind!].
Nonetheless, I give great credit to a hard-working and talented team of actors, who brought a great deal of pleasure to the Honest Toun. The audience appreciated the music and laughed a lot, finding the slapstick humour particularly amusing. Their final applause was loud and prolonged [despite the now chilly evening], both for the excellence of the show and the simple fact that they had been part of a live audience for the first time in forever…
Much Ado About Nothing William Shakespeare, Illyria, Musselburgh Run Ended, UK tour Continues for more on these events go to: https://www.thebrunton.co.uk