Much Ado About Nothing, Riverside Studios Studio 2, 4 December 2012
This lively LAMDA student production was directed by Janet Suzman. The stage was dominated by a large white screen at the back and a gantry running across the centre with a stairway leading down stage right. The plants and garden furniture indicated an outdoor setting and the production’s Edwardian feel evoked an atmosphere of genteel folk partaking of lemonade on the lawn.
The text was mildly edited. Most notably Beatrice’s “curst cow horns” sequence was cut from 2.1, while in 2.3 the phrase “I am a Jew” was retained. This was possibly Janet Suzman making a point about her own lack of offence at this historical prejudice.
It was the character of Beatrice, played by Holly Augustine, who became the main focus of interest due to Holly’s imposing physical presence. A healthy 5’10” and with great strength of voice, she made the most of her first appearance standing high up on the gantry, standing by an easel in a summer dress and sun hat.
This meant that her first imperious question about “Signior Mountanto” returning from the wars, literally descended from on high. She delivered many of her subsequent barbs with a fixed smile and deliberately batted eyelids.
She tended to dominate any action to which she contributed.
Her counterpart Benedick, played by Ryan Donaldson, was 6’4”, tall enough to tower over Beatrice, so that the pair were literally the biggest characters in the production. He sported a goatee beard and moustache, ripe for shaving off later in performance.
Leonard Cook’s Don Pedro was portly with a slightly receding hairline that made him look older than his 21 years.
Don John (Will Richards) was sullen but not particularly villainous. He was more preening than demonic. Although lacking in anger and bitterness, he did show aggression towards Borachio (Victor Ade) holding him down and threatening him to force him to reveal his news in 1.3.
Conrade, played by Frenchman Guy Remy, retained that actor’s French accent for some reason. It seemed rather odd for that particular element of Mediterranean colour to be added to an otherwise completely English rendering of the story.
The two gulling scenes were handled plainly but entertainingly. With invented character Belfiore (Lauren Trickett) singing below, Benedick appeared on the gantry and called out to the ‘Boy’ but then saw that the singer was a woman. He sent her to fetch his book, but this volume was not subsequently delivered at a comically inopportune moment.
On the arrival of the gullers, Benedick hid behind some pot plants on a platform at the stage right end of the gantry. He did little more than pop his head up between the plants to indicate his surprise, rather than make a complex, comical tour of the set.
In fact the real comedy in this sequence came from an unexpected quarter.
Balthasar (Richard Baker) played piano, but Belfiore took over his lines at “Note this before my notes…” and proceeded to sing Sigh No More in Latin and English, belting it out tunelessly, her hands clasped in front of her like a hopeless talent show contestant. The onstage audience was repelled by the discordant sound, and Benedick’s comment about the “howling of dogs” was indeed accurate.
At the end of the sequence, Benedick descended from the gantry and told us of his astonishment. When Beatrice came to fetch him to dinner he lay seductively on one of the benches and purred at her.
For her own gulling scene, Beatrice enter running “close by the ground” like a lapwing, flapping her unfastened top garment like a pair of little wings, before hiding under the stage right stairs. Hero (Katherine Carlton), Margaret (Jenny Boyd) and Ursula (Chloe O’Connor) stood above her on the gantry and weaved their web of deception while twirling their parasols.
Like Benedick, Beatrice also remained motionless and her interaction with the gullers did not involve any intricacies of staging.
For some reason Hero’s criticism of Beatrice’s “disdain and scorn” was quite angry and barbed. She looked towards Beatrice, directing her shouts at her almost as if she did not care if she were discovered.
Having fallen for the idea that Beatrice loved him, Benedick appeared with his moustache and goatee removed, but tried to disguise his freshly-shaven features by wrapping a barber’s cloth around his face and then over his head, as if it were a bandage for the toothache from which he claimed to be suffering. But the cloth was eventually pulled away so that Leonato (James Bailey), Don Pedro and Claudio (Daniel Abbott) could make fun of his bare chin and the uncharacteristic vanity it signified.
Don Pedro mocked Benedick, adopting the accents and gestures of the Dutchman, Frenchman, German and Spaniard he referenced.
Don John appeared on the gantry to hint at, then impart, the bad news of Hero’s unfaithfulness. As in the Globe’s 2011 production, Don John addressed the “So will you say when you have seen the sequel” line directly at the audience, not at his fellow characters, but without having wound us up to boo him. The audience did not react to this provocation.
The watch is often a comic highlight of any production. When the citizen’s patrol was introduced in 3.3, Dogberry (Ian Davidson) wore an officious uniform complete with a cap and oversaw Oatcake (Leonard Cook again) who was bumbling and sleepy.
But the most entertaining and downright laugh-out-loud moments in the watch sequences, and in the production overall, were the unforgettable appearances by an excellent dotard Verges: a truly show-stealing performance by a heavily made-up Lauren Trickett.
She played Verges as a bearded, senile koala-like creature, constantly befuddled and slow, forever looking the wrong way as his fellows speeded in the opposite direction.
His tongue peeped out of his mouth and curled up at the end like an ancient tortoise. As events and people repeatedly overtook him, he would utter a feeble ‘oh’.
He managed to be funnier than Dogberry’s malapropisms and pride, simply by standing around and looking confused.
However, Oatcake had a moment of physical comedy. In 4.2, the Sexton (Chloe O’Connor again) instructed Dogberry to call forth the watchmen to accuse Borachio and Conrade. Oatcake was fast asleep and was woken by Borachio. Starting from his slumber, he grabbed a pike and wheeled it around in a semi-daze, almost taking people’s heads off.
The rejection of Hero in 4.1 was interesting for reasons other than the immediate shock of seeing the hapless bride-to-be thrown to the ground by Claudio.
Beatrice saw Hero’s distress, hesitantly moved towards her, but only took the initiative after Hero had fainted. She comforted and hugged her friend as she lay on the ground unconscious.
As Katherine Carlton’s Hero was only 5’, the 10 inch height difference with Beatrice made her helper look almost like her mother. At a subliminal level the staging offered the interesting possibility that this might have been the case.
The audience laughed at Beatrice’s request that Benedick “kill Claudio”. But if there was any doubt about her earnestness, her follow-up “You kill me to deny it. Farewell.” was curt and brusque in a way that underscored the force of the original demand.
Benedick and Beatrice’s rapprochement in 5.2 began with Benedick practising his singing. Acting on the impressions created by their respective gullers, the pair found themselves sat on a bench and sidled closer to one another during their love talk.
At Benedick’s exhortation to “Serve God, love me and mend”, they drew close on the verge of a romantic kiss. But just before their lips met, Ursula interrupted them with the news that the accusation against Hero had proved false.
The missed kiss was a fitting precursor to Benedick’s final “I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be buried in thy eyes” which now seemed to be a continuation of their previously expressed sentiment.
In a very moving 5.3, Claudio sang at Hero’s torchlit monument represented by a marble block. The torches were ceremoniously doused at the end.
The second wedding saw Claudio and Hero reunited. Beatrice unveiled herself, but had gone cool on Benedick. Their love poems were produced, which they read apart, before Benedick stopped her mouth with a kiss. Don Pedro sulked at the back until Benedick brought him forward, telling him to get a wife. In this general air of jollity, the performance ended with a jig to great applause.
LAMDA give away tickets to their student performances for free, but request donations at the end. This is eminently fair because you can pay exactly what you think the performance was worth.
And in this case, the impression made on the audience undoubtedly meant that they earned more from these voluntary donations than from the price usually charged for a production of this scale.