There is nothing everyone agrees on about Shakespeare — the spelling of his name, gaps in his life, even his birth and his death dates differ. So let’s just agree that April is Shakespeare month – roughly 400 years ago he was alive and dead in the same month. Hence, the world is celebrating the Bard (please – no emails about who ‘actually’ wrote his plays or how to spell his name).

At QTC they’d decided that Much Ado About Nothing is the way to celebrate Shakespeare 400. Now I’m not sure if there is any subtext in choosing a play with such a title (!), but I do know it’s one of Shakespeare’s funniest and liveliest. It melds the witty banter of Taming of the Shrew with the misunderstanding of Twelfth Night and has the romance As You Like It. Strangely enough it’s one of the least performed plays – I’m not sure why.

One of the problems with any comedy is timing – add to that the complexity of Shakespearean dialogue and it can be a recipe for disaster. Borachio (Mark Conaghan) and Leonato (Bryan Proberts) opened well and were steady throughout. Tama Matheson (Don Pedro) and Hayden Jones’ (Don John) comedic timing was spot on. Don John’s motivation is murky but Jones’ performance was definitely not. And Matheson was physically engaging when words get in the way. Liz Buchanan as (Dogberry) and her offsider Verges (Megan Shorey) were revelations: I’ve never liked Dogberry’s broad humour but their deliveries have me rethinking my prejudice. Buchanan as celebrant (Friar Francis) confirmed her mastery of the text. Margaret (Kathryn McIntyre) delivered the bawdiest puns with appropriate gusto—the audience loved it. Hero and Claudio have milquetoast roles: his flip flopping about his “love” is textually annoying and she’s the pretty piece of fluff. Ellen Bailey and Patrick Dwyer were as good as the roles allow.

The two most important roles – let’s be honest, the rest of the cast as merely vehicles to transport Benedick and Beatrice to love – demand a lot. The Beatrice/Benedick banter is complex and wordy and the mainstay of the play. After a bit of a shaky start Christen O’Leary (Beatrice) found her stride and relaxed into the cadence of Shakespeare’s dialogue. Hugh Parker (Benedick), like Jones, employed facial expressions and over-the- top gestures to ease the audience through the duller dialogue.

Typically the Bard’s plays are pretty long, if the entire text is performed. So at under two hours there is some judicious cutting – and let’s be honest, Shakespeare could be windy at times. The textual trimmings weren’t missed and the changes were welcome – I particularly liked Benedick’s composing of his “halting” sonnet. And the sly insertions of contemporary expressions – physical and oral. The songs were imaginatively delivered –the play could have ended with the last song and finished on a real high. The final words did not give a better closure.

The play was shifted into a contemporary setting. Set design was appropriate – Freedom Furniture meets island resort. But the costuming was awful. The men wore navy whites – a good choice for designating their military status. They changed into beige outfits except for Don John who wore the ultimate bad-guy signifier, black. One of Hero’s dresses kept slipping and so wasn’t a good choice – it was distracting for her and for me; Beatrice wore a red jumpsuit that signified, I’m not sure what, modern, passion? I must admit I preferred the white floaty glamour of the Kenneth Branagh movie.

If you don’t like Shakespeare or if you’ve not sampled him, then QTC‘s Much Ado About Nothing is a stellar place to start. Performances are strong, direction was tight (Jason Klarwein always delivers for me), the set is clean and crisp, and the music is great. It’s on at The Playhouse (QPAC) until the 15 th May.

Words by Toni Johnson Woods
Image by Rob Maccoll