Ben Carlson as Benedick and Deborah Hay as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. Photo by David Hou.
Reviewed by James Karas
The cover of the programme for Much Ado About Nothing, the opening production of this year’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival, shows a straight-backed, mustachioed Ben Carlson in military uniform with his right arm around the waist of Deborah Hay. She is dressed in a beautiful gown, hair well- coiffed with an impressive column behind them.
Carlson is Benedick and Hay is Beatrice in this production of Shakespeare’s comedy of love, wit and battle of the sexes set in early twentieth century Brazil by director Christopher Newton.
Much Ado involves two parallel love stories, some wooing by proxy and a dastardly deed of deception that derails one wedding and causes a great deal of distress. Shakespeare also provides some low comedy with the inimitable Dogberry and his hilarious cohorts of incompetents and torturers of the English language who nevertheless solve the crime committed against our Hero and pave the way for happily ever after.
The best part of the play is the verbal jousting between Benedick and Beatrice and there is no hesitation in awarding full marks to Carlson and Hay for their performances or to Newton for his directing. They deliver their lines with skill and flair and are given comic activities such as sliding down the stairs by Hay or dropping a glass by Carlson when they are overhearing how devoted they are supposed to be to each other.
Claudio (Tyrone Savage) is the conventional ardent lover of Hero (the lovely Bethany Jillard) and it is their wedding that will be thrown off course when the bride is accused of gross misconduct on the eve of their nuptials. They will eventually find the primrose path, of course. Juan Chioran is an impressive Don Pedro, epaulets, medals and sash in perfect order. His half-brother, the black clad and evil Don John who will accuse Hero of infidelity is done well by Gareth Potter.
The plot moves at a good pace, the laughs come in and we bask in the sun of Shakespearean comedy of wit. We wait for the belly laughs of the low comedy provided by Dogberry and Company. This is the tankard of beer after the champagne of wit and we are ready for it. Unfortunately, the beer was left in the sun too long and it arrives flat.
Dogberry (Richard Binsley) in the play and most productions comes from another world. His dress, accent and ability to use the wrong word make him and his companions a hilarious part of the play. In this production they are more or less part of the crowd and barely produce a giggle for much of the time and never achieve anything like a huge laugh. This is a major hole in the production.
The set by Designer Santo Loquasto consists of a large staircase which is impressive but also problematic. It provides a hiding place for Beatrice and Benedick when the others talk about them and it is an impressive entrance for the brides. But it also creates some sight-line problems. If it were smaller and at the back of the stage it may have been less impressive but more practical.
The costumes of the officers are fairly conventional military uniforms. The other men of the court wore conventional suits and tails where necessary. There were suggestions of Brazil in some of the outfits and the music but nothing very outlandish or particularly striking in the change of locale.
Which brings us back to the programme cover and the production. Benedick is not a heroic conqueror but a middle aged officer who does not kill in war and only reluctantly challenges his friend to a duel. To that extent the cover is misleading but it’s not exactly a capital offence.
What is more serious is the costume and hair that Hay is given in the actual production. Did someone spend long hours to make sure that the beautiful Hay wears an ugly, straight skirt and a hideous top? Could they make her hair any less attractive? Why did they dress her up quite beautifully for the programme cover and then gave her the awful stuff for the production?
In the end, Newton and the production merit a B. All the ingredients and talent for an A were there and were simply not used or misapplied. Too bad.
Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare opened on May 28 and will run in repertory until October 27, 2012 at the Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca