Much (Ado) merriment

Much Ado About Nothing (shake & stir theatre company)

Judith Wright Centre, Performance Space

January 10 – 11

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When the show starts well before the play begins with comic duo Constables Dogberry (Mckeira Cumming) and Verges (Cleo Taylor) leading the audience in Mexican wave and beach ball game to the sounds of Daddy Yankee’s ‘Gasolina’, it is clear that with this “Much Ado About Nothing” we are in for a good time. The vaudevillian clowning from the ockerish couple is the perfect preamble to the Queensland Youth Shakes Fest celebration of the works of William Shakespeare and share of their contemporary take of one of the Bard’s classic comedies.

“Much Ado About Nothing” tells the tale of returning war heroes and their fortunes and misfortunes in love. Decorated veteran Claudio returns to Messina and soon sets to woo host Don Pedro’s daughter, Hero. They are engaged to be married, but in the short period between the proposal and the wedding many misunderstandings and misleadings occur. The most prominent of these is the wedding party’s secret attempts to inspire passion between the quarrelling Benedick and Beatrice. From here one would hope for a double marriage ceremony but Shakespeare is rarely so simple.

The proverbially titled comedy is an excellent choice for this year’s production. It is easy to follow and gives opportunity for a large cast involvement. And this “Much Ado About Nothing” is certainly a crowd pleaser as it plays up the fun through song, dance and heaps of humour. Although this is an abridged version, the production retains all the wit and emotion of the original script. With a strong ensemble, clever direction and an effective design, it is fresh, exciting and impressive.

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Chelsea Dawson and Callum Ford are equally excellent as the modern, mature ‘rom-com’ sparing partners, Beatrice and Benedick, last to know they are in love, although perhaps more convincing as their individual characters than as part of the couple. Fittingly for the text-driven comedy, their delivery of the Shakespearan dialogue is eloquent and poetic, despite being mostly of insults, and together than provide an apt contrast to the more conventional courtship of Claudio (Charles Platt) and Hero (Megan Dale). Plus, their comic timing is highly entertaining.

Ford is particularly versatile, taking Benedick from roguish joker in his distain towards love to commitment in choice of love over friendship, so that we absolutely believe in the better version of himself that he becomes. Similarly, Dawson’s ability to portray Beatrice’s defensive wit alongside her genuinely heartfelt scenes such as in share of her sadness about never finding the right man, make her performance memorable in all of its moments. Also of note is Harlee Timms’s perfectly-pitched performance, as the nefarious Don John, the manipulative bastard half-brother of Don Pedro (Liam Wigney). His powerful portrayal of the trouble-making villain gives the audience a needed thought-provoking glimpse at the play’s sometimes darker themes.

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With staging full of bright colours and summer costumes, it takes the audience longer than usual to transition to the text’s darker later tones, despite the deliberateness of Director Johnny Balbuziente’s decisions to signpost character transitions as the plot progresses from silliness to seriousness (although unnecessary and easy-laugh stereotypes do not help).

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Delivered by some of Queensland’s brightest young actors, dancers and musicians, this is a most accessible Shakespeare. And to have put the work together to such a high standard in a matter of days is an amazing feat. The knockabout passion of the creative cohort energises the text and the manner in which the entire cast plays off the audience adds another level to an already fast-paced and funny piece of entertainment, showing that Shakespeare can still be as merriful as ever.

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.

Copros, classics and close-to-home tales

The Queensland Theatre Company has announced its 2016 season, the last programmed by outgoing Artistic Director Wesley Enoch who is departing the company to take up the role of Sydney Festival Director for the 2017 – 2019 Festivals. As Enoch noted at the season launch, “we make theatre because we like to tell stories.” And what a bunch of stories he has left as the final component of his legacy… diverse stories of ambition, achievement and bravery.

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The highlight, coming early in the year is “The Secret River” adaptation of Kate Grenville’s multi-award-winning bestselling novel that tells of the bloody beginnings of colonial Australia, when pardoned convicts clashed with the traditional owners of the land they settled along the banks of the Hawkesbury River. Coming off the back of this year’s lavish ABC miniseries and previous Sydney season, the Sydney Theatre Company co-production is sure to be a powerful, epic (featuring 22 actors on stage) experience of a work that will surely settle into the Australian theatrical cannon.

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The provocative themes will continue in October’s “Disgraced” a co-production with the Melbourne Theatre Company of Ayad Akhtar’s debut 2012 play and winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The stirring drama promises to challenge notions of Islamophobia and terrorism through its intimate, intellectual Manhattan dinner party setting, (like “God of Carnage” with politics and sans the catalyst children perhaps).

disgracedSimilarly small in scale, will be “Switzerland”, in which Andrea Moor presents a thrilling re-imagining of the last days of crime novelist Patrica Highsmith (author of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and other twisted tales).

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At the other end of the serious scale is the bright and bold “Bastard Territory”, a co-production with Perth’s Black Swan Theatre Company about the 1960s and ‘70s bohemian lifestyle of far northern Australia and the Pacific Islands residents. With soundtrack boasting Shirley Bassey and Suzi Q, it promises to be quite the weird and wonderful ride when it features at the Bille Brown Studio as a Season 2016 Add On.

A comedy of the more classic kind will be Moliere’s “Tartuffe” (starring Darren Gilshenan who was last year seen in “Mother and Son”), a co-production with Western Australia’s Black Swan Theatre Company. The story of the titular brazen conman may have first been performed in the 17th century but promises to be sinfully brilliant and perhaps surprisingly still relevant in its attack on religious hypocrisy and fanaticism.

The season opener at The Playhouse, “Quartet”, Directed by Andrea Moor, also promises to be devilishly funny as it journeys into old age with four feisty ageing opera singers who, having fallen upon hard times, find themselves trying to come to terms with life in a retirement home by headlining a convert to mark composer Verdi’s birthday.

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Fun too, will be the bantering, bickering Beatrice and Benedick, when Director Jason Karwein brings to life the classic romantic sparring of “Much Ado About Nothing”, one of the Bard’s most accessible and enjoyable comic works, when Shakespeare was ‘on his zing’, we are told at the launch. And as the prototypical but also terribly modern rom-com couple: squabbling like children until they realise they’re actually in love and fall into each other’s arms, Hugh Parker and Christen O’Leary promise to make love quite the battlefield. The addition of Ellen Bailey and Tama Maheson in paring as the more traditional Hero/Claudio couple is only added bonus, coming as they both are from some outstanding 2015 Brisbane Powerhouse performances.

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Indeed, it is wonderful to see so much local talent featuring within the season. And also that it will once again feature shows true to the Brisbane experience, whether it be from across the world or around the corner. Brisbane playwright, David Burton’s new work, “St Mary’s in Exile”, to be directed by Jason Klarwein, is one of those stories that would be beyond belief if it wasn’t true, telling the tale of how, in 2009, Brisbane’s Catholic community was rocked when the Catholic Church stepped in to oust beloved priest Father Peter Kennedy from his post at St Mary’s in South Brisbane.

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Motherland” is back too, moving from Metro Arts to QTC’s Bille Brown Studio, for a return season in April. This historical drama by local playwright Katherine Lyall-Watson was a 2014 highlight, telling with delicious language a trio of somewhat true stories: of Brisbane-born Nell who has travelled the world before marrying the Russian Prime Minister and helping him flee the Nazis in World War II, writer and academic Nina who quits her native Russia for Paris, only to return in her twilight years, and single mother Alyona, a Russian museum curator whisked away to Brisbane by an Australian businessman, in search of a brighter future. Both epic and intimate in its sweeping tales of different women from different times, united in the heartache of exile from their homelands, it will take audiences from the chaos of a Russian military coup, through the hell of Nazi-occupied France to a turbulent Brisbane in the throes of the Fitzgerald Inquiry.

And The Dead Puppets Society is also returning, this time for World Premiere of “The Wider Earth”, featuring local talents including Thomas Larkin and Margi Brown Ash, as well as a bevy of astonishing puppets breathing life into creatures great and small. It promises to be an extravagantly beautiful recount of the tale of scientific visionary Charles Darwin’s voyage on the HMS Beagle in The Wider Earth.

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With its mix of classic and contemporary works, whimsical trips to the happiest of theatrical places and contemplation of differing opinions, the 2016 season promises to be all sorts of engagement. 3, 5 and 8 Play Packages are available now. Though if you are feeling adventurous, you could always all in to purchase the ultimate 10 Play Package!

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