Sigh no more maaate

Much Ado About Nuthink (Brisbane Arts Theatre)

Brisbane Arts Theatre

April 16 – May 28

“Much Ado About Nuthink” is a classic tale of mischief and romance where ‘he said she said’ takes on a whole new meaning, all set in and around a modern-day Queensland country pub. The localised take on Shakespeare’s iconic comedy “Much Ado About Nothing” takes place in the Royal Hotel, home and cosponsor of the league champion Messina Mongrels. And with a background soundtrack that includes Aussie classics like ‘Khe Sanh’ and ‘Throw Your Arms Around Me’ the Brisbane Arts Theatre production is very much Shakespeare, but not as you know it.

Things begin with the footy boys boistering back into town after their grand final victory, to be welcomed to the hotel by Leonato (Dominic Tennison), its licensee and president and of the local Chamber of Commerce. Heros on the footy field, halfback Claudio (Sebastian Woulff) and star player Benedick (Jayd Kafoa in his first production with Brisbane Arts Theatre) lead the charge into the comedy’s dual narratives, the young love of Claudio and Leonato’s sweet and virtuous daughter Hero (Leah Mustard) and the bickering-enemies-to-lovers story of Benedick and Beatrice (Natalie Shikongo). With the former halfback, the bastard Don John (Gautam Abhyankar) scheming to undermine his sister, Donna Pedro (Cathy Stanley), the local mayor, generous patron of the Mongrels and self-proclaimed matchmaker, the stage is set for a lot of fuss over intertwined misunderstandings and misleadings.  

The adaptation of William Shakespeare’s original text by director John Grey is effective and fits Shakespeare’s story nicely, even if it is more rom-com than balanced with the original work’s darker turns. While it still includes the problematic poem/song ‘Sigh No More’ which advises resignation in the face of male infidelity, the story has been effectively modernised as watchers capture phone footage of Hero’s infidelity with Borachio (Colin Ginger), in mistaken evidence of Don John’s claim that she has been false to Claudio.

Shakespeare’s original dialogue is maintained for the most part, although with addition of occasional modern obscenities, however, there are changes, beyond just those pronoun etc mentions necessitated by gender-swapped characters (appropriate for such a feminist play). Changing the arbor of Leonato’s orchard, where characters hide in eavesdrop of others to the beer garden, for example, works a treat. The production also maintains the bawdy innuendo and adolescent humour that envelopes Shakespeare’s wit, deception and slander. Charlotte Pilch is clearly enjoying breathing life into the seemingly minor character of the spirited and playfully flirtatious Margaret, whose biting wit is no better shown than when she banters with Beatrice on the morning of Hero’s wedding to Claudio, teasing her about her changed personality and implying that now Beatrice too desires a husband.

“Much Ado About Nothing” is one of Shakespeare’s few plays written in prose rather than the usual iconic iambic pentameter. Its dialogue is fast-based and, as this production shows, still accessible to a modern audience, thanks to performers who are delivering the words without the usual Elizabethan accents, with Ginger in particular, making the Australian style distinctive in the phonological speech patterns, intonations and syllable stresses that he gives the conspiratorial Borochio.  

The soul of the story is, as always, Beatrice and Benedick and there is an expected delight in the way Kafoa and Shikongo trade their merry war’s fast-paced insults about one another’s looks, intelligence, and personality. Shikongo makes Beatrice’s outspoken, fierce independence vividly clear in declaration that she has no interest in love, however, her wit is not always balanced with softness. And there is little sense that the two have a long-standing history.

The standout has to be Kafoa as class clown Benedick. Indeed, his performance is one of the highlights of the show. His witty wordplay dialogue rolls off the tongue with such ease that it is easy to forget that we are listening to Shakespearian English. He delivers the character’s soliloquies with a smooth but still dynamic rhythm, making them appear as if part of a conversation with the audience, such as when laments his inability to write poetry in attempt to write to Beatrice in accordance with the conventions of the time. And it’s his comic energy that brings the gulling scene to life as Claudio and Don Pedro, conspire with Leonato to trick Benedick into falling in love with Beatrice by staging a loud conversation about Beatrice’s love for him, making sure that that he overhears them from his ‘hiding’ spot behind a pot plant.

The play’s other two lovers, the shamed Hero and her beau Claudio, are presented as a nice counterpoint to Benedict and Beatrice, despite both couples’ romances being fraught with miscommunications and interruptions. And after interval, Gordon Wyeth and Henry Marsh delight with the slapstick physical comedy that comes with pantomime-eque appearance of the shambolic Senior Constable Dogberry and his Constable Verges. Hilarity comes not only from the duo’s physical escapades but from the mangled malpropisms that arise from Dogberry’s overconfidence. Little details also add to the joy of the play’s expereince, as we notice pub patrons checking in with the venue’s QR codes and a misspelled home-made banner advertising a ‘masked costume praty tonight’.

This is a busy play for a small stage and while initial sections fly by buoyed by its splendid cast, ensemble numbers see central dialogue sometimes competing with background noise and its Aussie pub soundscape. While it is long, this is a confident production that maintains audience attention. More than a comment upon the patriarchy, the production is a celebration of Beatrice and Benedick’s unacknowledged love, which appears to be appreciated by its audience. Indeed, while the play’s broad humour is highlighted at the expense of its serious undertones, there is much to like about “Much Ado About Nuthink” and its sharp, witty dialogue and humorous misunderstandings.

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