Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare Theatre Company

Here we are at last: Artistic Director Simon Godwin intended to program Much Ado About Nothing into his first season for the Shakespeare Theatre Company, but as we all know, that 2019-2020 season didn't exactly end the way we all anticipated, and then the production was delayed again from the 2021-2022 season. But finally, here we are at last, with a familiar story and a snazzy setting and the chance to kick back with Shakespeare's frothiest romcom.

Photo of Rick Holmes and Kate Jennings Grant in Much Ado About Nothing by Tony Powell.

Godwin's production is set in a cable newsroom, and the evening is sprinkled with snippets of reports filled to the brim with Shakespearean injokes. It's not clear who wrote these segments (a friend commented, Well, if no one is credited it was probably the dramaturg because that's how that goes), but old cynic that I am, I ended up delighted by them. Partly it's the quality of the jokes, but also it spoke early and well of the cast how assuredly they could deliver each breaking update from King Lear's England and the political maneuverings of Elsinore. 

Photo of the cast of Much Ado About Nothing by Tony Powell.

Assurance truly is the word; throughout the night, the cast demonstrates an ease in their characters in scenes both public and private, on camera and off. Kate Jennings Grant and Rick Holmes are well matched as co-anchors, rivals, and eventual partners Beatrice and Benedick, and the rest of the ensemble fits well into the bustling world around them of on-camera talent and off-camera crew and producers. In a remarkable feat, especially for a comedy filled with both high status characters and clowns, every member of the ensemble feels like they are part of the same play. Michael Kevin Darnall's Borachio is the most repentant version of that minor scoundrel I've ever encountered, showing both brazenness and true horror when the consequences of his actions become clear. Dave Quay's Dogberry, assisted the night I attended by an adept Terrance Fleming on as Verges, is a standout, keeping his performance both splendidly silly and remarkably grounded. 

That balance, so tricky to achieve and yet so vital to a successful performance, is felt often throughout the production. The newsroom set in particular, designed by Alexander Dodge and lit by Donald Holder, feels lush but not ostentatious. Evie Gurney's costumes are a highlight throughout, from the on-air wardrobe that would fit right onto a real-world news set to the best-dressed costume party since Heidi Klum's (seriously, would that we all had a wardrobe team backing us for a fancy dress party). 

Photo of Nicole King, Kate Jennings Grant, and Edward Gero in Much Ado About Nothing by Tony Powell.

Godwin's production is filled with slapstick (the gulling scenes are excellently done) and laughs, but there are some oversights within the production's chosen frame for the story. It's one thing to show Leonato (Edward Gero) getting handsy at a company party with female employees, demonstrating a culture that culminates in the public shaming of his daughter (and one that he largely sees as his own ruin), but why does that thread of toxicity, surely based on recent events in other newsrooms, feel like it gets dropped?  On a purely dramaturgical level, why isn't Hero's memorial done as a broadcast when the apparatus is right there and the theme of public reputation, scandal, and reparations are all baked in? When the show wants to speed the ending ahead to the dance party and the "happy endings," we wind up paving over the implications for Hero as she settles in for a career in a toxic environment with a husband who denounced her and left her for dead. If you don't follow through on the world you create, the balloon drop rings hollow. The danger of the modern habit of throwing Shakespeare into new contexts is that if you only commit to the bit and not the implications, you can rob the audience of the complexity we deserve.

There's a general push from the ending of the production to just relax, get over it, enjoy the hijinks and the final dance number, and ultimately, it's a fun if imperfect night at the theatre. If you are harping on the details, the jubilant choreography seems to say, you're doing it wrong. I maintain that if you do it right, you can revel in the love matches and still acknowledge the strain and the pathos baked into the text itself. I enjoyed myself, but overall, I did get left wanting a little more from the plentiful ado that's afoot at the Harman.


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