Whether or not it’s literally accurate to say that director Simon Godwin and designer Anna Fleischle have come up with a production of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ themed around Wes Anderson’s 2014 opus ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’, then that’s effectively what they’ve done.
Here the goings-on in Shakespeare’s archetypal romcom are relocated to an Art Deco hotel in 1930s Italy, in which the staff sport cute pastels, the women wear an endless succession of chic frocks, suits and headwear, and the quirkiness is dialled up to max. Okay, the sundry soldiers who frequent the Hotel Messina would presumably be soldiers of Mussolini’s fascist government. But it’s whimsical vibes only here (let’s just say it’s an alternate non-fascist Italy where everyone speaks in sixteenth-century English and move on).
Crucially, it’s a hoot. Whatever Godwin and Fleischle’s real inspirations, the whole thing looks like a dream and the decision to amp up the various characters’ eccentricities is a smart one. Productions of ‘Much Ado’ can fall into a comfortable pattern of centralising the witty clashes of on-off lovers Beatrice and Benedick as if their sparky repartee was the main point of the whole play. Here, Katherine Parkinson and Jon Heffernan play them as weirdos in a world of oddballs: she’s a dippily diva-ish film-star type, forever mining amusing new intonations and emphases from Shakespeare’s words; he’s a misanthropic loner, an object of amusement to his nominal BFFs Claudio and Don Pedro. Their romantic trajectory feels far more wayward than usual: they’re not just two proud characters who fancy each other indulging in several hours of negging; they’re genuinely quite strange people who really don’t know their own minds, their emotions combusting and finding new forms as the play wears on.
Crucially, though, they don’t feel like the fulcrum of the production. They’re great, but seriously, you’d still have a pretty good time if you took them out. This is in large part thanks to the tremendous casting of Ioanna Kimbrook and Eben Figueiredo as Hero and Claudio. Typically they’re a boring couple whose sedate romance exists only to be interrupted by the villainous Don John in order to give the play some semblance of a plot. Instead, she brings sass and emotional complexity to a role that usually feels like a virtuous doormat, while he offers a brittle laddishness that reminded me a little of a flailing ‘Love Island’ contestant, forced to reckon with his own fragilities in public.
Reducing the scale of the play to the inner workings of a hotel is a winner: it makes the machinations of David Judge’s Don John feel more small-time and petty rather than randomly operatic. And having David Fynn’s David Brent-esque Dogberry as the hotel’s eccentric head of security suits the character down to the ground, meshing the various strands of the plot together nicely as his ragtag band of untested officers ultimately save the day by unravelling Don John’s plot.
Fleischle’s huge, mobile sets are a wonder, popping up and whirling round to reveal ever-more hidden bits to the hotel, from bedrooms to a sauna. There are some tremendous physical comedy set-pieces, notably Heffernan’s Benedick hiding in a gelato trolly and ending up covered in sprinkles and ice cream. There’s a delightful five-piece band. I know times are tough even at the National, but it does not feel like any expense has been spared.
If this production has a fault it’s that it doesn’t feel even slightly urgent. It’s a luxuriant meander though ‘Much Ado’ that often seems immensely pleased with itself. Again, see: the films of Wes Anderson. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s right to be pleased with itself. Spending time at the Hotel Messina is a pleasure, a lazy holiday on which not a lot happens, very charmingly. It’s a wrench to leave.