Many directors, not to mention audience members, like to think of Much Ado About Nothing as a prototypical rom-com – the one about the bickering pair who think they hate each other, whose friends trick them into the realisation they’re the perfect couple.
And there are benefits to this approach in performance: the play has a breezy rambunctiousness when Beatrice and Benedick are the central focus and an uncomplicated ending. The lovers fall madly in love.
But Much Ado has a darker side, and over the years, it has threatened to eclipse the sun in Medina, the play’s ostensibly Italian and yet still-very-English setting. Because really, Beatrice (Anna Burgess) and Benedick (Nicholas Gell) are the subplot, and the true action revolves around Hero (Larissa Teale) and Claudio (Alex Cooper), the lovers whose path to happiness is far thornier, and leaves a distinctly bitter taste in the mouth.
Shakespeare’s works are divided into histories, comedies and tragedies in the First Folio, but they rarely conform neatly to these categories. Much Ado is defined by its tonal instability and shifting dramatic modes.
There are long stretches of the play that feel like a sophisticated comedy of manners and other sections that seem like a pure farce. The Hero/Claudio plot is, as one character says in this funny and irreverent production, “a real downer”, but it is also key to the play’s meaning.
The action takes place immediately after a war, and although far from enjoying a well-deserved peace, the returning soldiers find themselves in a series of skirmishes of a different kind. The battlefield is the human heart, and the weapons are their wits rather than their rapiers. In this production, for added colour, the boys are playing off against the girls in a battle of the bands – director Glenn Elston has taken his cue here from the constant references in the play to music and musical effects.
So we get a “play with music”, songs cobbled together from scraps of sonnets or other plays or developed from single lines and phrases. Some work wonders, such as a gentle ballad near the end sung by Beatrice and accompanied on guitar by Benedick; others, aimed at extending the underwritten parts of Hero and Don John (Kevin Hopkins), are less successful. Of course, for every song performed, more of the play needs to be cut. We are therefore dealing in degrees of loss.
Because they are the most fun to be around, Beatrice and Benedick are the performances that define a production – nobody cares who played Hero or Claudio throughout history, but various Beatrice and Benedick partnerships are legendary. It’s common for the Beatrices to run rings around the Benedicks, perhaps because Shakespeare stacks the deck in her favour, but it is important that they both ooze charm and affability.
Burgess is a full-throttled delight, haughty and sanguine in mockery, floppy and endearing in love. She carries a great generosity of spirit underneath her withering putdowns, and she burns with sulphurous rage when her cousin is unjustly disgraced. Gell is a slightly less complex foil, although he grows in dignity with the part. He does a fine line in pompous peacockery, aided by his excellent musicianship, but he doesn’t feel as richly human as she does, and his clowning sometimes feels a little obvious. They manage to convince as lovers though, and their nuptials are wonderfully affecting.
Various Australian Shakespeare Company stalwarts add performance clout to the production – Elizabeth Brennan is a terrific rogue as Borachio, Claire Nicholls is effortless as a gender-swapped Leonata, and Tony Rive and Madeleine Somers do wonders with audience guides Verges and Dogberry – although for once Kevin Hopkins is badly miscast as the villain Don John. He merely looks uncomfortable throughout. Best of all is Hugh Sexton as a dignified Don Pedro, even if Elston reigns in his aristocratic melancholy and stupidly pairs him up with Dogberry in the end.
That single decision might look inconsequential, but it indicates something about Elston’s approach: he’ll sacrifice complexity and nuance for easy sentiment and the cheap laugh every time.
He largely gets away with it here because his production – with its rock-inflected costumes by Karla Erenbots and rousing musical direction by Paul Norton – eschews Shakespeare’s sophisticated commentary on masculine braggadocio, misogyny and pack rule for a simpler, if infectious, tale of love lost and found.
A prototypical rom-com after all.
Much Ado About Nothing will run until February 4, 2023. Tickets for the production are on sale now.