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Tudor England meets ‘Dad’s Army’ and ‘Land Girls’ in this charming re-imagination of Much Ado About Nothing. Shakespeare’s timelessness has often encouraged directors to take on the narrative in different contexts, and Conrad Nelson chose, the perhaps cliched, heroes of World War Two. This much-beloved comedy is one that clearly refutes Shakespeare’s unfortunate stereotype of being inaccessible or even dull, so it was encouraging to see so many young faces filing into the Round Theatre at the Dukes on Tuesday 5th March and engaging as much in the frivolous tale of romance and comedy, as in its darker twists of fraternal betrayal.
The stark differences between character traits are set up to be contrasted and played with, we see Hero’s innocent hope and Beatrice’s determined cynicism emphasised from the outset, along with the evident differences between Leonato, Claudio and Benedick. However, in the lumpy, inelegant land girls uniform or the dapper RAF one, there is an element of similarity and camaraderie, perhaps even hinting that it is a quality that should be as poignant today as it was then.
While not being an original idea, the post-war setting could have been effective had they been able to commit to it fully, instead of creating an awkward juxtaposition of the sixteenth and twentieth centuries. The most uncomfortable example of this was the crossovers of costume seen during the ball, where the hats of the 1940s mixed with the Venetian masks so typical of Shakespeare; it appeared almost accidental, as if they had brought the wrong props with them but went ahead anyway. The only time they seemed fully immersed in the 1940s was the occasional musical numbers, some of which could best be described as disturbing. An apparent lack of vocal training in some cases and the clear bring-your-instrument-to-work day accounted for the discordance of the out of time and the out of tune mob of musicians. However, it was clear that these musical interludes were all in the pursuit of joviality and a way to appeal to a modern audience’s conception of a comedy.
Despite this though, they successfully captured the nature of the play and the characters with witty jokes being perfectly timed and justly executed. The Cinderellaesque wellington quip was the most popular, and this was just one example of the superb portrayal of Beatrice and Benedick by Isobel Middleton and Robin Simpson. It is an elementary mistake to slip from wittiness to the farcical and thankfully the company succeeded in maintaining a balance of comedy and drama, a quality crucial to the plot. It was incredibly easy to engage with and be entertained by, the successes and pitfalls of the characters and the turbulence of the action; it was a shame therefore that the musical distraction took away from this. Overall though the company auspiciously portrayed the heartwarming character journeys and the endearing trials and tribulations of love they endured, from the youthful passion of Hero and Claudio to the uncertainty between Benedick and Beatrice.