Much Ado About Nothing at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

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Deborah Hay as Beatrice and Ben Carlson as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. Photo: David Hou.
Deborah Hay as Beatrice and Ben Carlson as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. Photo: David Hou.

Much Ado About Nothing  by William Shakespeare

Until October 27, Festival Theatre, Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Stratford, Ontario

Director – Christopher Newton
Designer – Santo Loquasto
Lighting Designer – Robert Thomson
Composer – Jonathan Monro
Sound Designer – Thomas Ryder Payne
Choreographer – Jane Johanson
Fight Director – Simon Fon
Assistant Director – Aaron Willis
Stage Manager – Bona Duncan
Assistant Stage Managers – Angela Marshall, Crystal Skinner, Kristopher Weber
Production Stage Manager – Margaret Palmer

Benedick – Ben Carlson
Beatrice – Deborah Hay
Dogberry – Richard Binsley
Leonato – James Blendick
Don Pedro – Juan Chioran
Hero – Bethany Jillard
Don John – Gareth Potter
Claudio – Tyrone Savage
Sexton – Wayne Best
Borachio – Michael Blake
Seacoal – David Collins
Balthasar – Carl Danielsen
Antonio – Keith Dinicol
Henrique Oswald – Victor Dolhai
Conrad – Victor Ertmanis
Margaret – Claire Lautier
Verges – Roy Lewis
Ursula – Andrea Runge
Adjutant – Stephen Russell
Friar Francis – Timothy D. Stickney

One of the greatest challenges facing any Shakespearian actor is putting on and peeling off various layers of pretense throughout a play. This is what makes Much Ado About Nothing so interesting. Whoever plays the part of Beatrice must pretend she is a woman pretending she is not in love with Benedick, who, in turn, is played by an actor pretending to pretend he doesn’t love her. The actor playing Don Pedro must pretend to pretend to be happy, shirking sadness by means of his clever plot to bring “Signior Benedick and the Lady Beatrice into a mountain of affection the one with the other” (II, i). Whoever plays Hero may well choose to portray her as a young woman pretending to be in love with Claudio, who, in turn, pretends to want her hand in marriage until rejecting her at the altar. The stage is full of characters portraying false feelings while trying to ascertain the true feelings of those around them.

This Much Ado adds yet another layer of pretense in that Ben Carlson (Benedick) and Deborah Hay (Beatrice) actually are husband and wife in real life. So we have two actors really in love playing two characters pretending not to be in love even though they really are. Confused? Don’t worry. Just pretend that Carlson and Hay really are not married and that Benedick and Beatrice are real people and you’ve eliminated two layers of pretense.

Despite its lovely Brazilian setting, it is precisely in pretense that this production falls short. It doesn’t quite construct the persuasive web of pretense that will draw the various relationships into a meaningful whole at the end.

For example, the audience is never quite sure how sure Beatrice is of herself in maintaining the veil of pretense that she really does not love Benedick. She comes on the scene wringing her hands and batting her eyes so nervously that we have to wonder if Benedick has not already detected her façade by the time he overhears Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio “pretending” to discuss her love for him. Granted, Beatrice’s true feelings already reveal themselves in the first scene when she hurls a barrage of questions at the Messenger about Benedick’s fate in the wake of the battle. Even Hero picks up on Beatrice’s affections as she makes the deceptively benign clarification: “my cousin means Signior Benedick of Padua” (I, i). Everyone has figured out that Beatrice loves Benedick, even if Beatrice is oblivious to it. That should allow her to wield her wit with less diffidence than Ms. Hay attributes to her. Perhaps Hay wants to portray an older Beatrice bent on obeying the social constraints of her day, but in the end she comes across too old and even a bit nerdy. Perhaps Hay wants to give us a glimpse of Beatrice’s fragility, but she comes across a bit too weak when she nearly bursts into tears while confessing to Don Pedro that she was “born to speak all mirth and no matter” (II, i). Nonetheless, as the play proceeds, Hay does succeed in painting a coherent picture of Beatrice, who has always been one of Shakespeare’s most difficult roles. After all, we can scarcely surmise Beatrice’s former relationship with Benedick before the play begins, knowing only that he, having “won” her heart with “false dice”, “lent” his to her for awhile, and that she in turn “gave him use for it, a double heart for his single one” (II, i).

Whatever that might mean, Carlson’s Benedick nicely compliments Hay’s Beatrice. Don Pedro (Juan Chioran) is far more ebullient than Carlson’s Benedick, whose humor seems jaded by the vicissitudes of love, his pride, and his frustrated attempts to match Beatrice’s repartees. The blocking of the scenes in which Benedick and Beatrice overhear their peers discussing the love each purportedly bears the other is brilliant. They tiptoe from one more daring hideout to the next, betraying their presence occasionally to the amusement of their conspirators. Hay pulls off a flawless “fall” while sneaking down the stairs near the beginning of the scene.

Benedick’s inflated sense of self-worth clearly emerges when he reaches the matter-of-fact conclusion that Beatrice’s love “must be requited” (II, iii), eliciting a well-deserved chuckle from the audience. Carlson effectively combines the womanizer and romantic in Benedick, showing him to be a pragmatist whose heart is conquerable and whose vices are amendable when he professes: “Happy are they that hear their detractions and can put them to mending” (II, iii).

Tyrone Savage, playing a young, naïve Claudio, delivers a rather weak soliloquy after first learning of Don Pedro’s alleged love for Hero (“Thus answer I in the name of Benedick,” etc., II, i), but his rejection of Hero in Act IV is thoroughly convincing. Bethany Jillard plays an equally naïve Hero, as charming as she is true, ready to feign death and forgive Claudio if only on the merits of her innocence.

One can only sympathize with any actor forced to figure out the role of Don John, but Gareth Potter rises to the task. Although Don John is ostensibly the villain, his motives are various and oblique. Rather than focusing on any single motive, Potter cautiously underplays the role so as to keep him enigmatic. Don Juan’s sole pleasures in life are brooding and scheming and scurrying away like an immature brat. Potter’s understatement of the role is refreshing. James Blendick (Leonato) and Keith Dinicol (Antonio) endow their characters with due nobility but are not afraid to show us their quirks. Michael Blake gives us the often overlooked humanity of Borachio, while Dogberry (Richard Binsley) and his rag-tag crew provide just enough comic relief to allow the seriousness of the play to shine through.

There is always a temptation to turn this play into a critique of social castes and a study of gender roles. This production could have dwelt on such themes as they existed in the late Brazilian Empire. Happily it did not. Instead, it simply imagines Don Pedro to be a supporter of the regime and Don John a backer of the republicans, thus providing a pretext for the latter’s grudge against the former. More conspicuously it provides a wonderful background for bright costumes, passionate music, and glorious architecture we would expect to find in early twentieth-century Brazil (the production also takes the liberty to extend the Empire until that time). The only moments when the setting is forced are when the entire cast feebly dances together in a remotely Brazilian way. Otherwise the choreography effectively evokes the sensual allure of the time and place.

For all its elusiveness, Much Ado About Nothing is about the calumniation of a chaste woman, its rectification, and the reconciliation of two aloof lovers. It may not be one of the Bard’s masterworks, but it offers endless possibilities of interpretation and a profound reflection on which character each of us is on stage. Only by making a lot out of nothing do the characters reveal their true selves. The theatre is a safe place for us to make a lot out of nothing so that we may discover our true selves. If by the end we feel that all the fuss is resolved even though life’s messiness is not, we can say we saw a successful play. This production gave considerable thought to ending the play that way and it shows. Besides, none of us can pull off pretense perfectly in this life. Should we expect anything more from the finest of Shakespearean actors?

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