Merry Widow magnificence

The Merry Widow (Opera Queensland)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

June 22 – 20

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From the raise of its curtain, it is clear that Opera Queensland’s production of Hungarian composer Franz Lehár’s popular musical “The Merry Widow” is a lavish one. The dramatic set is of an opulent French Art Nuevo period as Act One takes audiences to a Paris embassy ball, where gold glamours in the bold geometry of the decor’s decadent act-deco detail, but also the epaulettes et al of the military costumes of Pontevedrian diplomats and the gorgeous gown of the titular Hanna Glavari (Natalie Christie Peluso)

The beautiful widow Hanna is from the tiny Balkan state of Pontevedro (a stand-in for Montenegro) and her homeland is approaching bankruptcy. The story follows the efforts of Pontevedrin officials at the embassy, primarily the ambassador, Baron Zeta (Jason Barry-Smith), to compel her to marry one of her fellow citizens rather than an enamoured Parisian. And despite his now self-distructive life swimming in pink champagne with the grisettes of Chez Maxime’s supper club, the idealistic Count Danilo (David Hobson) is deemed to be the most fitting suitor. But Hanna and Danilo have a history that sees the story of love in its many guises take some twists and turns (including an expected wedding of the Parisian sort, but not to whom you may expect) along their road to falling in love again.

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Like an Astaire/Rogers Hollywood movie, the narrative is filled with feisty exchanges, mistaken identities and misunderstandings as much as love scenes, with the comedy of confusion cresendoing in Act Two. It’s like a comedy of Noel Coward type manners with operatic melodies… light-hearted and a little bit naughty in its risqué innuendo.

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Justin Flemings adaptation of the libretto is wickedly witty in both its sentiment and creative Cole-Porter type rhymes. And its pithy one-liners are deliciously realised in Hugh Parker measured delivery as Embassy Secretary, Njegus, who mocks the French before becoming ‘Quite Parisian’ himself. Hobson is a humorous drunk when the audience is introduced to the hot-tempered diplomat Danilo and Sam Hartley and Andrew Collins add vaudevillian laughs as Huey and Duey duo, embassy attachés Bogdanovitsch and Pritsch. Then, when a male septet performs ‘Women’ (wonderfully also later reprised by the full ensemble), it is a highly entertaining Monty Python meets MGM musical moment.

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Peluso is captivating as Hanna, easily conveying both her elegance and cheeky spirit. Her crisp soprano sounds soar through the Lyric Theatre, yet she is also affecting in the sentimental love song ‘Vilja, o Vilja’. Opera veteran Hobson is a dashing and suave Danilo, bringing a solid but sweet lyric tenor to his numbers. Together they work well, both theatrically and in vocal duet, most memorably in ‘I Love You So’, the famous Merry Widow Waltz. Also of note is James Rodgers as Camille, French attaché to the embassy and romancer of Barones Valencienne (Katie Stensel). His smooth vocal sounds are richly romantic in capture the character’s blindly-devoted love.

Musically, the Queensland Symphony Orchestra achieves a delightful bright and dynamic Viennese sound, particularly in its strings. The operetta is, however, more than its famous waltz and the orchestra also more than rise to the occasion of its rich and colourful European folk tunes.

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The almost three-hour show, includes two 20 minute intervals, which may seem indulgent, but only until the distinct aesthetic of each act is revealed (Set Designer, Michael Scott-Mitchell). Act Two in Pontevedro is stunningly set against the impressive impressionist backdrop of a Monet waterlily painting with the women dressed in florals and soft colours. Then there is Act Three’s mirrored, metallic-silver shine of Maxine’s where Hanna is hosting a party.

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Not only does the shorter final act feature Hanna’s stunning cabaret-esque entrance, but it opens with an exhilarating, energetic dance number which see dancing waiters with champagne-laden trays can-caning and the club’s girls funning about in frou-frou pink peekaboo tutus. The chorus line numbers not only showcase the dancers’ excellent execution but also the work’s impressive choreography (Graeme Murphy Shane Placentino). Indeed, it is a show of interesting routines that, although eclectic in range from elegant waltzes and folk-inspired routines to sultry Cabaret teases and a Fosse-like while glove showcase circle around Hanna, are all outstanding.

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“The Merry Widow” is a feast for the senses thanks to its considered approach to every aspect of the glamourous production. When, for example, nightclub scene action freezes behind front-of-stage interaction, it creates a sumptuous tableau. Jennifer Irwin’s costumes are also richly realised as part of a bigger aesthetic. Ladies sweep about Act One’s ballroom in fishtail evening gowns on the arms of dapper gentlemen, without any restriction to their moment.

There is a reason why “The Merry Widow” is not only a staple of most opera companies, but the fastest-selling Opera Queensland production in over a decade. The work is extravagant to hyperbolic degrees, yet also highly accessible in its narrative, including a twist in the tale of the widow’s millions, and as it is both sung in and has subtitles in English. Under Graeme Murphy’s direction, it represents collaboration of the very best sort. Indeed, with a cast of around 50 singers and dancers, the opulent operetta is certainly magnificent, both is in its vibrant realisation and playful, irreverent tone. It is lively and entertaining down to smallest detail, so serves both as an ideal introduction to the artform, and confirmation of its beauty, especially in its breathtaking full ensemble numbers.

Behind the scenes satisfaction

Scenes from a Marriage (Queensland Theatre)

QPAC, The Playhouse

November 11 – December 3

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Marianne (Marta Dusseldorp) and Johan (Ben Winspear) are cosy in the comfort of their overly-scheduled, boring bourgeois lives … well that’s what they tell a magazine interviewer when being asked about their union. But what lies behind their façade and how long will it be before their imperfect love begins to dissolve? These are the initial questions at the core of “Scenes from a Marriage”, and the answers, as they unravel, are far from comforting.

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Originally a 1970s Swedish television series by accomplished and influential filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, “Scenes from a Marriage” is a beast of a play. The stage adaptation by Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith takes audiences behind the scenes into the intimacy of a marriage as it tries to survive secrets and suffering in the shadow of a single event and over-time, innate animosity. With a focus on domestic relationships, it has all the emotional and cognitive ingredients for audience engagement. Yet despite being a polished and visually stunning production with a first-rate cast, its resonance is more satisfaction in a neutrally-beige type way, than standout amongst a sensational season of shows.

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Even to those unfamiliar with the nuance of its Swedish creator, the production is noticeably Bergman. Staging screams Scandinavian in its simplicity, functionality and minimalism, opening as it does to a clinically white and sparely-furnished room. Even when, late in Act One, things open up to the reveal the reality of the couple’s conjoined life in a scene in the their holiday home, it is one of timbre tones affront a tree-lined lake backdrop. The aesthetics are quite stunning, enhanced by lighting that adds a theatricality to the sometimes shocking action on-stage.

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The authentic anatomy of a marital breakdown also comes courtesy of well-crafted dialogue that takes audience members from the light relief of predictable jokes through the devastating dynamics of divorce (and what comes next) and contemplation of if whether dislike is better than indifference.

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Real-life husband and wife Ben Winspear and Marta Dusseldorp are excellent in their respective roles, presenting the couple as two individual and complexly layered individuals. Their chemistry is clear… unsettlingly so in a physical fight sequence in one of the play’s uncomfortable scenes. Winspear’s glib Johan, shallowly self-assured and overconfidently narcissistic, allows Dusseldorp’s intense and ultimately vulnerable performance to take centre stage. And they are both well-supported by superb performances from Hugh Parker and Christen O’Leary as the couple’s mutually, mercilessly bitter, married friends.

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For most of the story, Marianne and Johan are unlikeable people curiously drawn to the mutual misery of their marriage, yet there are also sometimes glimpses of them as ordinary, suffering humans who love each other in their own way…. necessary for audience empathy and investment in their story. Like so often in life, there is no happy ending to “Scenes from a Marriage”, but its experience brings a satisfaction of sorts from the confrontation of its truth.

Photos c/o – Rob Maccoll

Meta-farce fun!

Noises Off (Queensland Theatre)

QPAC, The Playhouse

June 3 – 25

Playwright Michael Frayn’s classic meta-farce has been running all over the world since its 1982 beginnings, which is unsurprising given that until “The Play That Goes Wrong” perhaps, it was regarded as the funniest play ever.

The story is one of doors and sardines… good old fashioned sardines, told three times over with increasing hilarity. The three acts (performed with one intermission) all depict a performance of the first act of a play within a play called “Nothing On”. It’s all very British in its “Man About the House” innuendo and slapstick, with its pants down moments and storylines of tax inspectors and sex addicts. But that is just the beginning of its humour.

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Things begin with the mediocre actors clumsily floundering through a late-night dress rehearsal for the about-to-tour farce; Dotty (Louise Siversen) is unable to keep track of her props, as her dim employer, Freddy (Hugh Parker) needs reassurance as to his character’s motivation and as Roger, leading man Garry (Ray Chong Nee) is, ‘you know’ unable to actually commit to a finished sentence outside of the dialogue.

Add in the hard-of-hearing Selsdon (Steven Tandy) and his drinking problem, as the play’s burglar, and it is of little wonder that the pompous director Lloyd (Simon Burke) is impatient, though he is somewhat distracted himself, given his secret simultaneous romancing of the young, inexperienced actress Belinda (Libby Munro) and dowdy, over-emotional assistant stage manager Poppy (Emily Goddard). At least the show’s backwards set has been fixed.

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When Flavia (Nicki Wendt), Philip’s dependable onstage wife, comments on how she likes ‘technicals’ because everyone is so nice, it not just funny because it is a dress rehearsal but because of its foreshadowing of what is to come. In the second act, set a month later, thanks to the show’s intricate revolving set, the audience watches from backstage as the actors stagger through the same material with limited regard and a whole lot of passive (and not so passive aggression) in response to interpersonal secrets being revealed, jealousy being aroused and murderous rage erupting. This section is absolutely hilarious, despite there being virtually no words spoken, lest they disrupt the ‘on stage’ show.

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Fast forward three months and the funny continues as we watch as if we were members of the audience during the play’s final touring performance, which has by that stage descended into a whirl of slammed doors and missed cues as backstage passions spill onto the stage.

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Even with a clockwork script, farce relies not on language but precision of performances. And in this regard Queensland Theatre’s “Noises Off” more than delivers. Despite their countless cues, all actors are spot-on in their timing and commitment to the physical precision required to last the 3+ hour running time distance. As individuals, all members of the ensemble are hugely talented; together than bring their distinct characters to complementary, quirky life. Standouts include Louise Siversen, whose physicality punctuates all that the aptly-named Dotty does and Hugh Parker, particularly in Act One when in panicky but always-polite need of plot clarification and character motivation. And despite only initially appearing as a voice, Simon Burke adds much to the initial act, making even the shortest of responses, ‘no’, so very funny.

Although its length makes “Noises Off” quite the theatrical commitment, it is one that is worthy of the investment. The comedy of errors may not be sophisticated in concept, but under the direction of Queensland Theatre’s Artistic Director, Sam Strong, it is infectiously energetic. And whether ‘off-stage’ or on, the shenanigans on show are full of meta-farce fun.

Moliere’s modern mark

Tartuffe (Queensland Theatre and Black Swan State Theatre Company)

QPAC, The Playhouse

November 12 – December 4

It has been said that what Shakespeare is to the English, Molière is to the French. And in Justin Fleming’s new version of the French playwright’s “Tartuffe” there are a number of dramatic parallels between the two greats. Shakespeare references appear peppered throughout the text and, although conflict is established early, the titular character does not make appearance on stage until Act Three.

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Ahead of the delayed introduction, there is much talk of Tartuffe, allowing the audience to build up a profile of the character that is far from complementary.  Posing as a spiritual advisor, houseguest Tartuffe (Darren Gilshenan) is selling salvation to successful socialite Orgon (Steve Turner), intent on ruining his lavish life by stealing away with his fortune and his wife Elmire (Alison van Reeken). Orgon’s family can see through the fraudulent opportunist imposter but head of the house Orgon regards the slick swindler as his salivation, to the extent that he and his mother (Jenny Davis) no longer take any action without first consulting him. Orgon even announces that he will marry Tartuffe to his daughter Mariane (Tessa Lind), already engaged to Valère (James Sweeny).

With Mariane distraught at this idea, the family devises a scheme to trap Tartuffe into confessing to Elmire his desire for her, however, all does not go according to plan with Orgon refusing to believe his wife, disinheriting his son (Alex Williams) and signing a deed of gift of all his property to the con-man before things end somewhat abruptly with a deus ex machine sudden surprise solution.

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In its satire of religious hypocrisy, “Tartuffe” is filled with witty dialogue, irony and timeless comedic conventions like overheard conversations. Richard Roberts’ set design not only transposes the 350 year old narrative to the contemporary world but allows for some fabulous French farce exaggerated moments of physical comedy such as attempts to hide behind furniture and furnishing. And the impressive rotating stage allows action to be taken both upstairs and outside to a balcony and patio, which adds interest to what is a lengthy work.

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Most noteworthy, however, is the text itself, which, in keeping with Moliere’s original work, is arranged in rhyming couplets. Although initially sing-songy as matriarch Madame Pernelle begins with an onslaught of insults upon her family, it soon settles to become more easy-on-the-ear in its rhythm, thanks to Fleming’s re-working of the script through use of modern Australian vernacular and clever incorporation of ockerisms within the dialogue. The result is inspired in its irreverence with sayings like ‘shut your crack Dorine’ sitting smoothly alongside more sophisticated language.

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Under the direction of Kate Cherry, there are no weak links in the stellar cast, however, the rhyming couplet dialogue seems to sit most comfortably in the mouths of Jenny Davis and Hugh Parker (as Cleante), especially in Parker’s final incantation as an ABC news reporter exposing Tartuffe’s regard of religion as sport. As the ‘monologue Queen’, family maid Dorine, Emily Weir is hilariously funny, particularly in scenes of interaction with the man of the house. Her often risqué lines are delivered with ocker emphasis of the “Kath and Kim” kind. And even though her over-the-top characterisation sometimes borders on too much of a distraction from her essential verbal and physical comedy, the first hour is riveting because of her presence and the second half suffers in her absence.

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As the self-proclaimed holy man Tartuffe, Gilshenan is transparently insincere and appropriately sleazy more than seductive in his rhetoric as his driving base impulses are laid bare (literally). His embrace of the conniving character’s negative charisma is so convincing that at encore, his curtain call is met with audience boos of the lecherous lascivious liar.

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In its day, “Tartuffe” was a controversial play; when first performed in the 17th century it was damned due to its attack on religious hypocrisy. Yet this production also leaves its mark in reveal of its resonance within a contemporary world in which opinion is currently divided about political salvation or damnation. Its overriding theme of appearance versus reality also resonates on a more intimate level with assertion that those who act only in self-interest should be regarded with suspicion. As the final show of the season, the play is perfectly pitched: light-hearted and not too thinky, but playful and funny to the point of snorts of audience laughter.

Not so straight forward

Straight White Men (La Boite & State Theatre Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

July 27 – August 13

“Straight White Men” is a difficult show to review. From the initial moments of its experience it subverts expectations by blasting the awaiting audience with an uncomfortably loud, rattling pre-show soundtrack of female hip-hop music, complete with explicit lyrics, before beginning with a stage manager (nominated by its Korean-American playwright Young Jean Lee to be a non-gender-conforming female of colour), greeting the audience.

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In contrast, the story itself begins simply enough with initial scenes that appear to emulate family sitcom conventions. What seems to be constructed as a classic American family drama (set somewhere in its Midwest), however, emerges as so much more as it probes the construct of masculine identity. The work, brought to Queensland by La Boite Theatre Company in collaboration with State Theatre Company of South Australia, explores what could be perceived as the oldest birth privilege around – to be a straight white man.

When recently-widowed Ed (Roger Newcombe) welcomes his middle-aged sons home for Christmas, their exuberant celebration and sibling hijinks are but a veneer to the question of privilege. All of the men are successful; the youngest, Drew (Lucas Stibbard) is an award-winning writer, middle-brother Jake (Chris Pitman) is a hotshot banker who refuses to apologise for his success and eldest sibling Matt (Hugh Parker) has been working a series of temp jobs at social organisations, but is living with his Dad as he attempts to repay his student loans. Harvard graduate Matt, traditionally acknowledged as the brightest of the three, has a long history of championing minorities, yet questions what he is meant to do with his life, which leads to his sudden breakdown in tears, without apparent reason or explanation, during a night of Chinese food and foolery.

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Although the switch from parody to provocation is subtle, more recognisable in retrospect than experience, the distinct chapters to the show’s tone sometimes labour its rhythm. For example, after teasing and mocking each other in brotherly banter and having too much to drink, characters engage in a dance off, which, although fabulously funny, drags long beyond its natural endpoint.

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As the rowdiest of the brothers, Pitman gives an engaging performance as the least likeable of the siblings. And Stibbard is similarly solid as the put-upon youngest brother Drew. But appropriately for a play that is primarily about Matt’s experience in just trying to stay out of the way of life, Parker gives a layered performance that hints at his inner sorrow well before his character’s tearful breakdown, proving what an asset he is to any production.

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Rounding out the cast is Newcombe as their loveable dad, adorable in his insistence that they adhere to traditions like Christmas pyjamas and attempt to join in their dance party, and Stagehand-In-Charge Merlynn Tong who, through the simplest of smiles and nods, brings a humour to the role to make it more than just a meta-theatrical device.

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Appropriately, the one-room middle-class family drama takes place in a white living room (designed by Victoria Lamb), naturalistic in aesthetic thanks also to Ben Hughes’ lighting. Further bringing Lee’s script to life is the music composed by Kim ‘Busty Beatz’ Bowers, La Boite Artist-in-Resident and musical director of Black Honey Company. Still, holistically, the work seems unsatisfying, particularly in its conclusion and it is its cast that ultimately carries its success.

Although relatively simple, the plot’s universal appeal suffers from the playwright’s requirement for there to be no alterations, meaning that the character’s jarring American accents and the narrative’s US references, alienate rather than appeal. Still, the show’s examination of the notions of ambition, activism and the value of capitalist ideas of success provide valuable consideration in any western culture. And as a satire and show of social consideration, “Straight White Men” represents the deep and diverse theatre at the core of La Boite’s artistic vision and thus Brisbane’s dynamic theatre culture.

Ado anew

Much Ado About Nothing (Queensland Theatre Company)

QPAC, The Playhouse

April 23 – May 15

Compared with other Shakespearean plays, the plot of “Much Ado About Nothing” is comparatively simple and orthodox. A nobleman, Leonato (Bryan Probets), agrees to the engagement of his daughter, Hero (Ellen Bailey) to Claudio (Patrick Dwyer), a lord in the entourage of Don Pedro (Tama Matheson). But Don Pedro’s bastard brother Don John (Hayden Jones) is intent upon disrupting proceedings. Meanwhile, Leonato’s niece Beatrice (Christen O’Leary) is embroiled in a merry war of wits with another of Don Pedro’s lords, Benedick (Hugh Parker), until others trick the pair into realising their love for each other.

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On the surface level, at least, the play is commonly perceived as a frivolous comedy of nothingness, the selling point of which is usually the playful banter between Beatrice and Benedick and perhaps the comic buffoonery of Dogberry. And in Jason’s Klarwein’s first directorial foray into main-stage theatre, it is this focus that sees audience members frequently responding with riotous laugher. Indeed, rather than presenting a formal society overly concerned with outward appearances, which the play intimates, The Queensland Theatre Company production exploits the work’s word play for every comic possibility, balancing its puns, malapropisms (mistakenly using one word for another that sounds similar) and innuendo, with physical performance and slapstick, all to audience delight.

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The setting is deliberately ambiguous in a sometimes bothersome way, with original text mentions of Messina and ducats referencing Italy, alongside the use of Australian currently and mention of the Commonwealth, that jar with its Palm Springs sensibility of golf games and ladies tennis. Regardless, the indulgent lifestyle is brought to life through lusciously-lit tropical sunsets, as well as a night-time fireworks display and an Act Two tropical storm.

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Staging consists of a simple pallet of whites upon which to lay the performances, with a revolving stage. Not only does this allow for seamless transitions between inside and outside scenes, but affords plenty of places for Beatrice and Benedict to skulk about in attempt to overhear the deliberate declarations of the others regarding the pair’s supposed love for each other, allowing comedy to come from their respective reactions as much as their attempts to remain hidden, unlike other productions that have relied solely on slapstick in these sections of the play.

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The contemporary production features a number of deliberate attempts to create anew appeal to modern audiences. Tight direction has condensed the work to its core, cutting, for example, the character of Ursula, one of the gentlewomen attending on Hero. Language has been occasionally changed, for example when Beatrice compares courtship and marriage to a series of dances. And buoyancy is added to proceedings courtesy of a bit of Beyoncé and other modern musical additions. The cumulative result is a lighthearted take in which the antagonist, Don John’s motivation (or lack thereof) is murky in its privilege of Beatrice and Benedick’s banter over its primary Hero and Claudio plot.

The cast has been carefully curated to bring the play’s poetry to life. Parker is simply superb as the boisterous Benedick, scoffing of love until its experience, yet always self-aware and able to laugh at himself ‘for man is a giddy thing’. More buffoonish than swaggersome in his determination to remain a bachelor, he shows perfect comic timing, yet he also effectively conveys the character’s transition from self-conscious figure of fun to new maturity and capability for love. And he inhabits the language with a natural affinity.

Comparatively, O’Leary’s performance as Beatrice lacks a little nuance and her character some vulnerability. Her portrayal of Beatrice’s sharp-tongued wit is on-point from her first words (of mockery), so that when Benedick refers to her as ‘my lady disdain’, it rings entirely true, but she never quite captures the poignant pain of a woman whose pathos hides behind her pride. She is, however, at her best in the tragedy, when in reaction to the brutal rejection of Hero, she reveals an impressive depth of emotion in frustration of female limitations and contemplation of ‘If I were a man’, appropriate for portrayal of one of the most independent and modern of Shakespeare’s heroines.

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As the contrasting, conventional, conformist characters of Hero and Claudio, Bailey and Dwyer, do a decent job with what they are given. Although clearly lacking in confidence and, therefore, dependent upon Don Pedro, Dwyer’s Claudio comes across as less shallow and insensitive than he perhaps should, making him almost likeable in his naivety. As the passive, dutiful daughter upon whom events are played, Hero floats about with little to say throughout the play, yet Bailey’s performance presents her as more than just a fragile creature. And while Probets is appropriately patriarchal as the loving father Leonato, he appears less convincing in his wish for his defamed daughter to die rather than live dishonoured.

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Liz Buchanan and Megan Shorey as a now-female Dogbery and Verges Constable and Deputy duo deliver standout comic performances. Eager to assist, they play up all range of moods, grovelling, condescending and outraged, in their mangled language delivery. And as the bawdy Margaret, Kathryn McIntryre is another deserving audience favourite.

This is an energetic and accessible production of one of Shakespeare’s funniest and liveliest plays. Although it minimises the story’s darker strains, this is forgiveable as people will no doubt be attending with expectation of experience of the verbal sparring of its reluctant lovers. And its sympathetic chronicle of the plight of Elizabethan women compelled to acquiesce in a man’s world, gives even modern audiences an added contemplation.