WAAPA have been doing some interesting things lately with their black box theatre, the Enright Studio. They have been using different configurations that have changed things up in terms of presentation and staging. I should have twigged that something a little unusual was in the offing when I walked by a queue of people where people normally have no right to be queuing. Yes, the main entrance to the studio was closed off and the audience was entering via an exterior side door. First time I’ve seen that happen.
Once inside we were presented with Leonata’s café decorated with pictures and posters from the 40’s with a sign welcoming the boys back home from presumably World War Two. Period music was used to good effect to complete the reimagining of Shakespeare’s comedy classic to the different time period as was the costuming, hairstyles and makeup.
What followed was a rollicking presentation of deception and schemes as Benedick (Rory O’Keeffe) and Beatrice (Elle Mickel), Claudio (George Pullar) and Hero (Anna Apps) eventually find love in the most unusual of ways after the various connivances of Hero’s Mother’s Leonata (Megan Smart) and Don Pedro (Lachlan Ruffy) to bring them together and the calculated manipulation of Don John (Giuseppe Rotondella) to tear them apart.
In typical Shakespearean fashion, conversations are overheard and either misrepresented or misunderstood to comical and mischievous effect. The more serious ramification is Claudio’s rejection of Hero at the altar after he believes a fabricated story that destroys her chaste reputation. It is interesting that the men are so quick to misjudge the women so completely with little but hearsay. But all’s well that… ahem.
O’Keeffe made for a robust Benedick who comes into his own in the second half when the ‘court jester’ takes on more serious airs as he confronts Pedro and especially Claudio about their treatment of Hero. Mickel was excellent as a most feisty Beatrice and her putdowns of Benedick were deliciously barbed. Pullar is a cocky Claudio but has a nice arc as remorse at his actions after being so thoroughly misled hits home hard in the second half. Likewise Apps has plenty to work with going from virtuous bride to disgraced ‘harlot’ only to regain that virtue on returning from her own fabricated banishment.
The villain of the piece, Don John, is given a certain panache by Rotondella as typified by his smooth exit as the first half closes. Emma O’Sullivan is hilarious as the thick accented Dogberry while Kieran Clancy-Lowe has some nice moments as Father Francis. Megan Smart is given a tricky role as Leonata going from proud mother, to contempt for her daughter then grief as the truth emerges, to vengeful matriarch. There is great strength here though she plays Leonata’s immediate reaction to Claudio’s humiliation of Hero as somewhat overwrought for mine.
Ruffy’s Don Pedro is suitably commanding and it’s his belief in the deception perpetrated by Borachio (Joel Davies) that seals the deal for Claudio and initially Leonata. Brittany Santariga and Sophia Forrest get up to plenty of light-hearted mischief as Margaret and Ursula respectively.
Among the many highlights is the early dance sequence on the men’s return from war as couples jive and celebrate with great energy. Then there is the very amusing set piece where Benedick hides (badly) under a table listening to Don Pedro and Claudio falsely talking up Beatrice’s affections for him. This is matched by Hero and Ursula doing likewise about Benedick’s love of Beatrice while she is hidden behind the bar.
The standout moment though is the wedding where Pullar’s Claudio explodes into venomous condemnation of his prospective bride. Apps’ anguished response matches his disdain. It is a powerful dramatic moment in the midst of all the comedy. And this is a very funny play indeed with all the deceits and manipulations gleefully played out. The exchanges between Benedick and Beatrice, in particular, are verbal jousting at their best. There was also a lovely moment as Claudio puts words to his remorse at Hero’s supposed grave and one by one the supporting cast blow their candles out until darkness ensues. O’Keeffe’s funnily inept attempt at song was another memorable moment and was in marked contrast to Kate Betcher’s beautifully rendered effort earlier as Balthasar.
Despite the obstacles along the way it all ends in joyful dance as the two sets of couples finally commit to each other and the cast take their final bows. One minor note would be that the audience was seated along three sides of the studio with those bows only delivered to the back wall rows.
Written by William Shakespeare, Directed by Sean O’Shea and performed by the second year acting class, Much Ado About Nothing runs until Thursday 7 May at the Enright Studio on the ECU Campus in Mount Lawley.