Much Ado About Nothing is a comedy of quarrelling lovers, stately affairs, and high-voltage farce. What is promised (and delivered) in this particular performance is a spectacle with a sense of history and occasion, an Elizabethan play in an Elizabethan library: the real deal. Nominal authenticity abounds in the play literally brought to you by the London-based ‘Shakespeare’s Globe’, made more faithful still to the theatre of yore on a properly dressed-down travelling booth stage, calling on a veritable legion of acting talent to conjure a whole cast of characters from this small, tight-knit troupe. Modest staging notwithstanding, the courtly high jinks of Much Ado are given proper regal ambience in the citadel of the Bodleian’s Old Schools Quad for a properly old school production.
There’s definitely a tension at play here; on the one hand, this production taps into some genuinely wonderfully preserved pleasures of Shakespeare done simply and well (the minimal staging, the dramatic irony of concealed characters, etc.) and on the other hand, the whole experience is a kind of novel tourist attraction marketing itself on a claim of being an authentic Shakespearian experience.
Nevertheless, the proof is in performance: Christopher Harper’s wonderfully conceited Benedick is balanced measure for measure in Emma Pallant’s proud Beatrice, winning the audience over wholeheartedly with their spectacularly flawed and tempestuous relationship that really is a delight to behold. Similarly, praise must go to Alex Mugnaioni’s transformation from the genuinely sinister and laconic Don John in the first half to the buffoonery of Dogberry in the second, this latter performance providing the biggest laughs of the play with his original Brandian inflection on the classic clown.
Doubtless some will find the slapstick direction and audience-involving antics a bit pantomime, and the humour does occasionally come more from lurid gesticulation and dancing than the words themselves; Leonato’s vituperative attack on Hero in the wedding scene is undermined somewhat by his foolish prancing at the ice-breaking beginning of the play. However, the performance really does burgeon into a fully-fledged comedy as it progresses as romantic complications deepen and the weighty narrative unfolds. The strength and beating heart of this play, then, really is in the cast’s diversity. They capably handle the histrionic demands that Much Ado impose on actors, which would strain in a lot of other troupes of similar compact size. So for the price of your ticket, you do get a very accessible and entertaining ingress to Shakespeare, as well as the opportunity to be entertained for an evening in the Bodleian, making this production out of the ordinary theatrical kilter and highly desirable for anyone interested in a truly unique event in Oxford’s Summer calendar.