Walking into Antic Disposition’s staging of Much Ado About Nothing in the great 16th-century Gray’s Inn Hall, where Shakespeare first performed A Comedy of Errors back in 1594, is like stepping back in time. Seats are placed in tiers either side of the stage floor that runs down the centre of the room, while soft evening light shines through the stunning stained glass windows set high in the hall’s great panelled walls.
Except for the fact that centre stage a French waiter is blundering around with a bottle of wine and a checked dishcloth, and here the break from Shakespeare’s Elizabethan England is apparent. Inspired by the physical humour of French comedy genius Jacques Tati, Ben Horslen and John Risebero’s Much Ado is certainly not as faithful to the original as the venue is – and that’s no bad thing.
The award-winning theatre company are renowned for presenting plays in unusual spaces, and their 15-night run at Gray’s Inn marks the end of a summer tour across seven of the UK’s most beautiful cathedrals.
Shakespeare’s most frequently performed comedy, Much Ado is a complex series of misleading events and mistaken identities that threaten to thwart the marriages of the play’s two leading couples; honourable Claudio and the innocent Hero, and feisty Béatrice and commitment-averse Benedick. When their own plots to mischievously deceive one another are sabotaged by ‘the bastard prince’ Don John seeking revenge, chaos ensues.
Here Shakespeare’s Messina is not an Italian city, but a French village shortly after WWII, where celebratory red, white and blue bunting still hangs from every surface. A group of British soldiers are passing through on their way home from victory, and this is where the action begins.
A superb Anglo-French cast help make this setting authentic and a seamless fit for the play. The script itself remains largely unaltered – there’s no attempt to add in more modern phrasing or WWII references – so it’s the costumes, setting and musical numbers scattered throughout the piece that do most of the work in establishing this new time and place.
The live score is arguably the weakest element of the play, with the singers’ voices slightly dwarfed by the epic size of the venue. Some extra conviction with the song and dance routines could have brought them to life more.
But there are many outstanding performances here. Claudio’s (Alexander Varey) devastating shaming of Hero (Floriane Andersen) in the chapel is one of the most powerful speeches of the night, and Benedick (Nicholas Osmond) and Béatrice’s (Chiraz Aïch) fiery war of words throughout is captivating to watch.
The play’s most bold deviation from the original is in the excellently-portrayed Dogberry (Louis Bernard), the city guard who becomes the crux of the plot’s resolution in his own blustering way. This is where Jacques Tati’s style of silent physical comedy comes to life, and Horslen and Risebero have done a superb job of interweaving it with the more traditional elements of the play.
This is a distinctively original retelling of Much Ado About Nothing that capitalises on the ludicrous elements of Shakespeare’s tale to make for truly hilarious viewing, in a truly stunning venue.
Much Ado About Nothing is on until 1st September. Tickets are available here.