Plenty of Ado About Shakespeare

A Review of Lucy Bailey’s Production of Much Ado About Nothing (summer 2022)

It was a perfect day for my visit to the Globe this May. The sun was shining, but it was not yet too hot, and anyone who is a regular visitor to London at the time of year will know the air is filled with drifts of tree pollen, which gave a magical air to the love fuelled proceedings.

My own good mood and the general atmosphere should not be taken to be the reason I was so enamoured with Lucy Bailey’s production of Shakespeare’s famous comedy though. I will admit to being a real fan of this play too, as the wordplay makes this a genuine comedy (and not in a well, it follows the comedic structures definition of comedy). Beatrice is an independent, clever, funny, non-nonsense and ruthless character who has more nuance than many of Shakespeare’s tragic creations. When she tells Benedick to kill Claudio, followed by:

You kill me to deny it. Farewell. I am gone, though I am
here: there is no love in you:

A women who is certainly not afraid to do what needs doing and she could rival Lady Macbeth when it comes to getting what she wants. It is certainly an interesting activity to compare her words with those of that fiend like queen.

But don’t let my own biases interfere with the fact this is an engaging and exciting production. Lucy Phelps as Beatrice brings just the right balance of fun, spikiness, heartbreak and venom to her performance. The moment where she has to reject the advances of Don Pedro, a mane haired and authoritative ‘Ferdy Roberts, is a wonderful combination of horror, panic and deference as she realises how this could play out for her if she refuses what could be a genuine offer from a man too expensive for her to wear every day.

 The play has been transported to Northern Italy in 1945 and the arrival of a wounded messenger at the start, to strains of Italian resistance song ‘Bella Caio’, sets the tone for the battles and resistance amongst the sexes to follow. But there is also an atmosphere of real celebration that comes post victory, providing opportunities for everyone to embrace life and participate with the revelries with abandon.

The soldiers are embraced into a wholly feminine world, perhaps indicative of Shakespeare’s ongoing concern about the place of the soldier in a society without conflict, and this was something that initially concerned me. Hero’s father, Leonato, has been replaced by her mother, Leonata. Absent mothers are quite a feature in Shakespeare’s comedies, and where mothers do appear we have overly ambitious matriarchs such as Volumnia in Coriolanus or the Queen in Cymbeline, problematising the notion of a male dominated world and what it means for us all. I wondered how this change would impact on the exploration of masculinity and power in the play, especially once Hero is accused by the men and we see her father turning against her in a speech to rival Lord Capulet’s.

However, I was quickly reassured as Katy Stephen’s proves herself to be an authoritative funny and musically talented actor, who completely steals the scene, especially when flirting with the bemused Claudio or bursting into song. She matches Don Pedro in her presence and, when she does berate her daughter for her supposed impropriety, you can feel the venom from afar.

Visually the production is captivating, green, lush and ivy strewn, and the inclusion of folkloric wicker masks, feel appropriate for a May time production. The actors dance, cavort, appear, and disappear amongst the audience, making excellent use of their physicality. This is especially the case with Ralph Davis who plays Benedick, tall, gangly and at one point seen hiding in a plant pot with a tree on his head (you really have to see it to appreciate it). Dogberry and his crew are absurdly funny in their pomposity and officiousness, and the added spectacle of him teetering on a bicycle within and above the audience, gave opportunities for a lot of laughs and just a touch of trepedation.

It was nice being there on a day too where there were a lot of school groups. It was very warm standing there in full groundling mode, and some continued to wear blazers and laden with bags throughout. I wondered how they might cope with the performance in those conditions, but quickly it became clear they were mesmerised too. The production’s use of interaction with the audience really helped with this and there was even a moment where two of them found themselves on stage, much to the delight of their peers. It was clear by the end they had pretty much universally enjoyed the production too.

The only weakness I would highlight is Don John. The actor (apologies that I haven’t got a programme to find his name) did a sterling job, but became a bit lost amongst the exuberance of the other performances. When he outlines his nefarious plans, Bailey makes good use of the other characters and slow motion, but he could have been easily forgotten. Perhaps this is more of a criticism of Shakespeare’s development of this character than the production though.

In case you hadn’t realised, I really enjoyed this production. I am not a regular visitor to The Globe or theatre generally, but I do love my Shakespeare and I would say this was one of the most well-crafted, funny and exciting productions I have had the pleasure to see. If you get a chance to see it do. I will be looking out for more of Bailey’s productions in the future.

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