Much Ado About Nothing, The Globe, 2 July 2011
It was a sight almost impossible to behold without cracking a smile. The Globe stage, extended out into the yard along most of its width, looked extremely pretty with its water pools, flowers and overarching orange branches. Real birds singing under the heavens added a realistic touch that made the wait for the play to start very relaxing.
If the intention had been to create a laid-back Mediterranean feel, then it had succeeded.
The performance began with a messenger entering on the stage right walkway and handing a letter to Ursula, who was washing clothes in one of the pools. She took the letter through the centre doors to Leonato offstage, who then entered announcing its contents.
Beatrice and Hero looked concerned at what the arrival of Don Pedro might herald. But Leonato emphasised the words “A victory” in his third speech, causing the two women to rejoice at the news. Beatrice, looking relaxed with a sun hat hanging nonchalantly on her back, had her arm around Hero indicating their closeness. She sipped occasionally at drinks served with straws emphasising the leisurely pace of life at Leonato’s house.
Eve Best’s Beatrice was witty, confident and inwardly content. Her word play turning “a good soldier too, lady” into “a good soldier to a lady” and the slightly ribald joking about “stuffing” showed her to have a good sense of humour, but a generous rather than a bitter one. She moved around the stage and dominated the first scene both physically and verbally.
Don Pedro’s soldiers entered on the stage left walkway. Attention naturally focused on Benedick, who seemed quite affable.
When the argument between Beatrice and Benedick began, the pair went off to opposite corners downstage. Their first exchanges were lengthy and conveyed complex ideas.
Then the dispute rapidly shifted gear. The exchanges became shorter and more quick-fire. As their words became more terse they met each other nose-to-nose centre stage.
There was nothing jovial about this part of the spat. It was, within the context of light-hearted romantic comedy, a quite scary exchange of words.
Beatrice exited shaking her skirt causing Benedick to cough as if choked by the dust thrown off.
Don Pedro announced that he and his men were going to stay at Leonato’s house for at least a month, which caused Claudio to punch the air in victory and shout “Yes!” This indicated his happiness at having an extended opportunity to woo Hero.
Benedick talked with Claudio about Hero, but despite his earlier air punch, Claudio was unsure about how to proceed. His nerves were indicated by his constant twirling of a tassel on his doublet.
This production’s Hero was played by a black British woman. For reasons of sensitivity, Benedick’s reference to her being “too brown” was cut.
Benedick’s abhorrence at the concept of marriage was emphasised by his inability to even pronounce the word “husband” without choking on it.
These speeches in defence of his bachelor status must have been trotted out on many occasions before. He moved stage right to explain various instances of his thinking on the issue. When he got to the part about being put in a bottle and shot at like a cat, with the best archer being called “Adam”, they all mouthed along to his words as if wearily familiar with the sentiment.
Don Pedro talked with Claudio about his plan to woo Hero on Claudio’s behalf. Behind the grille of the centre doors we could see Borachio with an incense burner perfuming the room, as he would later describe to his accomplices. He overheard Don Pedro’s entire speech outlining the scheme.
We caught a brief glimpse of Antonio on the upper stage gallery. The old man’s head popped up long enough to hear Don Pedro mention his intended wooing of Hero (roughly 304-306), but not the part about acting on Claudio’s behalf. He left the gallery in disgust after eavesdropping on this brief snippet.
This neat staging demonstrated one of the readings of the play title: that the action revolved around “noting”, while also providing coherent grounds for why different rumours about Don Pedro were in circulation.
This then segued into 1.2 where we saw Antonio run to his brother Leonato to recount what he had just overheard. In the text Antonio refers to his information coming from a member of his staff, but here he bumbled over references to this being “overheard by a man of mine” as if hastily concealing his own espionage.
Our first extended look at Don John in 1.3 allowed him to talk at length about his seething discontent, cementing his black-hearted villainy firmly into our awareness.
Don John was a very interesting character within this production. He was portrayed as a bug-eyed Scottish sociopath dressed entirely in symbolic black. He managed to tread the border between menace and comic villainy without crossing over.
Borachio came with the news he had just overheard. Seizing on this opportunity for mischief, Don John asked him who was getting married. Borachio’s “your brother’s right hand” was accompanied by a wanking gesture indicating his disdain for Claudio. This nasty sentiment set the tone of villainy for the entire group of conspirators.
The start of act two offered the more pleasant sight of Beatrice and Hero relaxing with Leonato and Antonio.
Beatrice paddled her feet in a pool and jokingly moved her hands like gabbling mouths to mock the absent Benedick. When explaining her extended witticism about the curst cow being sent no horns, she wrapped a scarf around her head as if emphasising its lack of protuberances.
She pointed at Antonio as an example of a man with a beard who was “more than a youth” and not for her, but then pointed at a groundling as an exemplar of someone “less than a man”.
Beatrice immediately realised that she had made an insensitive faux pas. She held her hand in front of her mouth and apologised in embarrassment. This looked like Eve Best breaking out of character and apologising as herself to an audience member. But it was obviously a scripted part of the performance.
This was really clever because it exploited our impression that we were seeing the “real” Eve Best, insensitive and gaffe prone, and not her studied performance of the character of Beatrice, which was the only reality actually being presented to us.
She redeemed herself by pointing at men in the upper gallery when referring to sitting with the bachelors in heaven.
Some of the centre boards on the stage extension were lifted and a fire lit in a shallow recess to set the scene for the party. The masked dancers revelled.
Margaret established an aspect of her character by flirting outrageously with Balthasar, eventually kneeling suggestively in front of his crotch. Antonio put on a French accent to evade detection by Ursula.
Crucially, Beatrice seemed to recognise Benedick as himself. If this was the case, then her willingness for him to hold her close as the spoke was very telling. They both faced the audience with Benedick stood tightly beside and behind her, their hands enmeshed.
Don John swooped on Claudio to dispense his bad news about Hero. Claudio was angry when concluding that he had been duped by Don Pedro. Benedick mirrored Claudio’s displeasure by being indignant at Beatrice’s labelling of him as “the prince’s fool”.
Arriving with Claudio in tow, Beatrice looked piteously as Benedick suddenly requested to be dispatched on a mission to some far flung place.
Don Pedro picked up on this continuing tension and suggested that Beatrice had lost Benedick’s heart. She responded to this with a tender speech, hinting at their past romantic involvement, saying that “he lent it me awhile”.
It took the presence of the orange branches hanging overhead for me to finally cotton on to Beatrice’s civil/Seville pun.
Claudio was dumbstruck to hear that Hero was actually his, requiring Beatrice to prompt him with his “cue”. He and Hero kissed to audience cheers.
In what looked like a repetition of Eve Best/Beatrice’s previous embarrassing moment with the groundling, she messed up her attempted flirt with Don Pedro. Beatrice’s denial that she was interested in him was too emphatic and dismissive, causing him to take offence and Beatrice to look mortified at suggesting he was not attractive. This ineptitude and gaucheness had touches of Miranda Hart about it, particularly when she snorted out a laugh like a gauche boarding school girl.
Describing the hour of her birth, Beatrice paused when getting to the poetic “but then there was a star danced” which made for a poignant moment.
Leonato sensed that she had dug herself into a hole and offered her a way out, asking to check up on some unspecified matters. His ensuing remark to Don Pedro that Beatrice “mocks all her wooers out of suit” was a reference to her dismissal of him.
Claudio was excited about his forthcoming marriage, which, Leonato reminded him, was a “sevennight” away.
Don Pedro conspired with the others to arrange for Beatrice and Benedick to be brought together.
The brief scene 2.2 saw a more sinister plot being hatched with Borachio explaining to Don John how he would trick Claudio and the others into thinking that Hero had been unfaithful. The “term me ‘Claudio’” variant was used.
Benedick called on Margaret, not the Boy, to fetch a book for him at the start of 2.3. He took off his shoes and paddled in the stage left pool before hiding behind the stage left pillar as the gullers entered.
As Balthasar played “Sigh no more” Benedick slowly beat his head against the pillar in frustration at its romantic lyrics.
The gullers got into difficulties trying to make up stories for Benedick to overhear. Both Leonato and Don Pedro had problems, which were only resolved when Don Pedro cried out “How, how, I pray you?” whereupon they all went into a huddle and then broke out of it having ostensibly shared a secret as Don Pedro exclaimed “You amaze me!”
Benedick and his gullers swapped sides of the stage. He tried to overhear their conversation more closely by putting on a hat and using a hoe to pretend to be weeding the ground, shuffling ever closer to them.
At this point, Margaret re-entered with the book Benedick had requested. He tried to shoo her away, mouthing “fuck off” under his breath. This was done with sufficient clarity for the words to be clearly understood by the audience, who hooted with laughter.
By this time the gullers had moved back stage right. Margaret took Benedick’s hat as he returned stage left, which meant that the gullers suddenly caught sight of Margaret standing in the same position and in the same hat that Benedick had previously adopted.
Benedick climbed up a ladder stage left which was propped up against the pillar under some orange branches. The ladder was promptly taken away by the workers who had originally placed it there. He ended up with one foot in a loop of rope and one on the pillar. He let an orange fall to the ground as the gullers passed close beneath him.
After the gullers had gone he descended on the rope loop to the ground and moved centre stage to address the audience. He was convinced of the truth of what he heard to the effect that Beatrice secretly loved him.
Beatrice herself entered stage right with a large bell, one of the bells used at the Globe to announce the imminent start of a performance. She walked across the stage to where Benedick stood and rang the large bell very loudly close to him for some considerable time. The aggression in play here underscored that she had been sent on this errand against her will.
Benedick was comically inquisitorial when asking her if she took pleasure in the message. This was beginning of his attempt to read double meaning into her words.
The gulling of Beatrice in 3.1 saw a washing line being hung between the two stage pillars and a single sheet folded across it. Beatrice ran onstage and hid behind it as Margaret and Ursula began to talk about her. She then pulled the sheet along the line to the other end. She peered over the top, and then after a while pulled it to the middle, at which point she hid under the fold in the sheet.
Beatrice heard the others criticise her character and huffed audibly with enough breath to make the sheet billow slightly.
At the end of this gulling, Beatrice emerged chastened by the criticism she had heard of herself. She went to the edge of the stage and singling out a female groundling, had a heart to heart moment with her, holding both her hands and then hugging her. It was as if her generalised address to the audience had become focused on one particular woman with whom she had a girly moment.
Benedick appeared for the next scene 3.2 with his shirt open to his chest, like a medallion man without a medallion, and with a small piece of paper over a recent shaving cut. Don Pedro, Claudio and Leonato teased him about alleged signs that he was in love.
When Don John appeared and began to set Claudio up to be duped, some in the audience began to hiss at him. The close bond between cast and audience in this Globe production meant that spontaneous reactions to onstage events were positively encouraged by the dynamics of the theatre space.
This coupled with Don John’s constant sneering, more or less guaranteed that he would be booed and hissed. His description of Claudio’s fiancée as “every man’s Hero” was a red rag to the groundling bull.
This effect was clearly one that the production had foreseen and was counting on. Because the staging had a response to the hissers.
Claudio and Don Pedro were willing to believe his version of events. They exited expressing their dismay and outrage. Don John watched them leave and his parting words to them “O plague right well prevented!” rhetorically matched what they had said.
He then remained onstage alone grimacing at the audience, who responded with more hisses.
The production played its masterstroke. Don John spoke his final sentence in the scene, one normally spoken to the others and not directly to the audience.
His scripted line directed mostly at us hissing groundlings was: “So will you say when you have seen the sequel.” He exited and the interval came.
I was absolutely stunned at the brilliance of this: goading the audience into booing and hissing the villain and then using words in the text itself as a riposte. There were no intervals in the original performances, but it is possible that this line was used in a similar way and directed at the audience as a piece of pre-emptive writing.
The second half of the performance began on a comic note as Dogberry, a short man, entered with Verges, a very large man, inches behind him. Verges carried the watch’s lamp, holding it above and in front of Dogberry. Their coordinated steps and apparent fusion into a Dogberry/Verges creature drew instant laughs from the audience.
Dogberry punctuated his lines with nervous tics borrowed consciously from Carry On star Jack Douglas.
Seacoal entered via the stage right walkway when beckoned and was handed the lamp, causing Verges to look disconsolate. The audience saw his crestfallen expression and aahed in sympathy.
The whole watch lined up on stage for their instructions. One of them had a completely blank face which did not flicker when Dogberry waved his hand in front of it.
Another watchman interrupted Dogberry’s instructions to ask a series of questions. Each time he spoke, he placed his bill on his shoulder, stamped his foot and raised his hand. This repetitive sequence of movements became a running gag as each question was put.
Dogberry’s convoluted image involving a ewe, lamb and calf was spoken hesitantly as if he was making it up on the spot. Verges’ supportive comment about its sagacity was therefore very funny.
Dogberry and Verges exited briefly. On his return, Verges was carrying a lantern, one much larger than before. Dogberry reminded the watch to be “vigitant” and turning to exit banged his head on Verges’ lantern, staggering off in a zig-zag.
Borachio was drunk when he entered with Conrade. Taking a swig from a hip flask, he spilt some liquid down his front, looked at it and encouraged Conrade to take shelter under the “penthouse” to escape the “rain”. As the watch tried to follow them, they circled the stage right pillar at close proximity without the two groups making contact.
As the watch looked on stage left, Borachio explained how he had tricked Claudio and the others. He performed a lewd mime to demonstrate what he had done with Margaret, culminating with a thrusting movement that caused drink to spurt suggestively out of his flask. Having seen Margaret’s flirtatiousness at the dance, we could believe what Borachio was illustrating.
The watch moved to arrest the pair, but at first they simply laughed at the comical bunglers. The intervention of the more determined Dogberry and Verges allowed the watch to overpower them.
Dogberry was holding a very small lantern and he eyed Verges’ larger one jealously. He made his companion take the smaller one and kept the larger for himself, clutching it to his chest. After a brief instant, Dogberry screamed as the hot lantern began to burn him.
Hero prepared for her wedding at the start of 3.4, assisted by Margaret and Ursula. She wore a tire decked with flowers. She was nervously insecure at the mention of the Duchess of Milan’s gown and her “O, that exceeds, they say” was fretful rather than congratulatory. Hero obviously had a bad case of pre-wedding nerves.
Beatrice appeared stage left carrying a pillow and snuffling with a cold. Her pronunciation of “H”, the letter than began hawk, horse and husband was “Ach” expressing a degree of contempt for the idea of being sick for a husband.
Standing stage right, Beatrice responded strongly to Margaret’s provocative mention of the “benedictus” cure.
Ursula came to fetch Hero to the church and after a short delay Hero screamed hysterically as the reality of the situation caught up with her.
Dogberry and Verges prepared to talk to Leonato (3.5) by practising a mendicant bow in proffering a hand to receive a reward.
At first Dogberry talked to the door, but soon realised that Leonato was addressing him from the gallery above. The old man was busy with the wedding preparations, but eventually came down to stage level to talk to the two watchmen.
Leonato quickly dealt with their news by telling the men to examine the “aspicious persons” themselves.
Verges fainted after Leonato went in, presumably with the tension of meeting such an important person. Dogberry tried to revive him. He fetched water from a pond cupped in his hands, but it all drained away. He tried to drag the huge Verges towards the water, but he was too heavy. He then used his hat to collect water and the soaking revived his colleague, who instinctively swam backstroke in order to save himself.
The crucial wedding scene that began act four saw Hero and Claudio kneel downstage. Beatrice stood in the background looking moved and supportive of Hero. She and Benedick were responsible for the rings, and their momentary meeting centre stage as they placed them on a stool behind the couple proved slightly embarrassing for them both.
Claudio’s “No” produced gasps as it looked like he was directly refusing to marry Hero. Relief came as the verbal quibble was explained. Benedick came up behind Claudio to comment on the “interjections”.
Claudio became angry and stood up to question Leonato. He threw Hero to the ground before saying “There Leonato, take her back again”. Hero, although shocked, got up again and remonstrated with Claudio. Leonato and Don Pedro joined in. Benedick’s “This looks not like a nuptial” got a laugh.
Hero fell to the ground sobbing and was comforted by Beatrice. As Claudio and the others left, the stool with the rings was overturned casting them to the ground. Don John crowned his triumph by throwing some loose change contemptuously at Hero implying the cheap price at which she could be bought.
Leonato continued to rail at Hero, while Benedick hovered in the background. The Friar intervened with his plan to fake Hero’s death, to which Leonato consented saying that “the smallest twine” could lead him.
Beatrice and Benedick were left alone to make their declarations of love for each other. Benedick blurted his out; Beatrice was caught off guard, reciprocated, but then backtracked in confusion shaking her hands as if trying to rid herself of her doubts.
The audience laughed when she insisted that Benedick “Kill Claudio”. Benedick did not seem to take her seriously either which prompted a tirade from Beatrice ending with her shouting about Claudio that she would “eat his heart in the marketplace”. This was all excellently paced and emotionally authentic.
The Sexton sat on a stool near the stage right walkway at the start of 4.2 and wrote his report as Borachio and Conrade were examined. Dogberry did not appreciate the complexity of the procedure and tried to leave just after presenting the accused men, forcing the Sexton to call him back and produce their accusers.
The watchmen’s accusations were confirmed as the Sexton held up a piece of paper with the details, including news of the death of Hero. On hearing this, Borachio knelt in repentance, still clutching the purse of reward money in his hand. This detail was particularly pleasing and effective in performance.
The Sexton exited and Dogberry tried to find him by looking under the cushion on the stool where he had been sitting. Conrade called Dogberry an ass, prompting his long self-aggrandising speech, accompanied by brief mimes outlining each of his good qualities.
Act five began with Leonato telling his brother Antonio how he was convinced that Hero had been wronged by Claudio. So when Claudio and Don Pedro encountered them sparks were bound to fly. As Leonato accused him, Claudio reached for his sword and hastily put it up again. But after some goading, Claudio pushed Leonato to the ground before turning on Antonio.
Antonio’s rage at Claudio forced the young man to draw his sword, but his gesture offering to fight was only half-hearted: he held his arms open, emphasising how ready he was to meet Antonio’s aggression. Finally Claudio threw his sword to the ground. Antonio went to pick it up, but was dissuaded by Leonato.
Having dealt with unserious challenges from Leonato and Antonio, Claudio then faced a determined Benedick, who although not outwardly aggressive, did signal a serious intent to confront Claudio in a formal duel.
Claudio did not take Benedick seriously, causing the latter to make a wanking gesture telling Claudio “your wit ambles well”. This and Benedick’s persistence finally got the message through to his opponent.
The watch entered and Dogberry was so nervous of Don Pedro that he did not fully articulate his sentences. He only half spoke them with the last part trailing off as he swallowed his speech.
Borachio, still contemplating the death of Hero, looked distraught. He only gained slight relief from his lengthy confession to the assembled company.
Leonato entered and scorned Borachio, but also turned his wrath on Claudio, who offered his sword to Leonato saying “Choose your revenge yourself” as if inviting Leonato to strike him with his own blade.
There was a slight ripple of audience laughter when black Leonato mentioned that his brother, the white Antonio, had a daughter who looked exactly like Hero and that Claudio could make amends by marrying her.
Dogberry and Verges bowed obsequiously before Leonato, were rewarded, but continued to bow and comically ingratiate themselves.
Benedick showed Margaret his love poem to Beatrice (5.2) but she could only laugh at it. Her witty, bawdy wordplay with Benedick was fully in keeping with the earthiness of her character.
He sent Margaret to fetch Beatrice, and tried singing while waiting for her. He stood stage right and tunelessly intoned his song.
Once together, the pair were hesitant in their declarations of affection. Beatrice’s biting wit returned to dig at him. Benedick’s “Serve God, love me and mend” was more like a witty riposte than an invitation to intimacy.
Benedick did reveal his true feelings for Beatrice at the end of their encounter. Beatrice invited him to go hear the news of Hero’s betrayal. His reply drifted off into living in her heart, dying in her lap and being buried in her eyes. But then he hastily corrected himself and responded to the matter in hand.
Hero was carried in on a bier for 5.3. Flowers were placed in her (presumed) dead hands and Claudio read his epitaph to her. He placed the paper he had been reading from next to her. At the end when all those not in the know had left, Hero got up from the bier and the Priest gave her a thumbs-up to indicate that the subterfuge had worked.
The final scene (5.4) saw the ladies being given hooded veils to disguise themselves. Claudio’s line referring to “an Ethiope” was cut for reasons of sensitivity.
Claudio and Don Pedro joked around with Benedick, with Don Pedro clenching his fists and landing them on Benedick’s head like cuckold’s horns as Claudio taunted him.
The women blindfolded Claudio and spun him round a few times. Hero was brought forward and placed beside him, still hooded. She took off her hood to speak to Claudio before removing his blindfold, so that his surprise at seeing her was instant. They kissed to great audience applause.
Benedick undercut the romance of the moment by swiftly donning a blindfold, holding it slightly away from his eyes and entreating the Friar to tell him which of the hooded women was Beatrice.
Beatrice revealed herself and they both swiftly realised that their only real assurance of the other’s feelings had come from their friends.
Their cool, sarcastic mockery of each other was punctured when the love poems each had written about the other were produced in evidence of their underlying affection.
Beatrice and Benedick each obtained the other’s work and posed centre stage brandishing the offending lines at each other like weapons ready for a duel. They stood apart to read the poems, at one moment laughing in scorn, then nodding in admiration at something pleasing.
Leonato’s line was given to Benedict who stopped Beatrice’s mouth with a kiss to audience cheers.
Don Pedro sat slouched on the stage left walkway, prompting Benedick’s advice to him to get a wife.
The performance ended with a jig, the most notable feature of which was the return of Don John. Don Pedro slapped him, but then shook hands to make up, so that his errant brother was a full part of the celebratory dance at the end.
This production came as welcome relief after the overpriced and slightly tacky production on offer at Wyndham’s Theatre.
Its main advantage over the Tennant/Tate production was the presence of Eve Best who delivered an excellent and fully rounded Beatrice.
This Much Ado was well worth additional viewings. It further cemented the Globe’s reputation for producing thoroughly enjoyable Shakespeare comedies that take full advantage of the venue’s intimate cast-audience bond.
The striking redirection of a Don John line at the hissing audience before the interval demonstrated that there are always exciting new possibilities to be discovered in a Shakespeare text.