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.

What would youth know?

Pains of Youth (That Production Company)

Studio 188

November 5 – 15

Studio 188 at Ipswich’s old Baptist Church is an intimate venue whose charm reminds me of Greenside’s Royal Terrace setting alongside Greenside Parish church in Edinburgh. Seeing “Death of a Salesman” at the Ed Fringe there was a memorable occasion, firstly because any decent production of the greatest play of the 20th century is noteworthy, but also because, due to an audience member taking ill, the production had to be stopped to allow their exit passage across the stage. Like ‘Salesman’, the experience of “Pains of Youth” in the Studio 188 venue is certainly impressive, however, it is due to everything other than the text itself.

Expressionist German playwright Gerindand Bruckner’s story takes place in 1920s Vienna, a time when Austria was caught up in a swell of modernism following World War One. On the eve of their graduation, a depressive, depressing group of bisexual upper-middle-class medical students who share a boarding house  all struggle with the need to transition into adulthood. “Bourgeois existence or suicide. There are no other choices,” they lament melodramatically.

“Pains of Youth” is an ambitious work and That Production Company is unflinching in its depiction of the dark subject material in this version by Martin Crimp. Every relationship is toxic, however, the action is dominated by the sinister, Nietzschean Freder who delights in orchestrating the destruction of those around him. He corrupts the innocent maid Lucy (Ellen Marshall) from her ‘sleepwalk through life’ to prostitute herself and feeds the suicidal tendencies of the aristocratic Desiree (Jane Flanagan). Initially flirtatious and flamboyant in his embodiment of the romance of eternal student existence, Patrick Dwyer is ultimately beguiling in his cruel manipulation, delivering a standout performance.

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Hysterically volatile like Tennessee Williams’ Maggie the Cat, Lauren Roche anchors the cast as Marie, the gorgeous, multifaceted protagonist, whose descent in madness intensifies as her every layer is shed. Her performance energy is engaging in its liveliness as her mad desperation increases. Indeed they are all quite mad but, as Desiree wonders, ‘what’s the point in being sane’?  And what would youth know?

Sane or insane, there is little to care about in this group and without this, no amount of thematic universality can make give the text substance. The dialogue is dense with sometimes quite poetic inner thought declarations regarding love, life and learning, however, their poignancy is sometimes lost in the frenetic gabble of its adolescent tedium and naivety of statements like “being young is the one great adventure of our lives”.

Staging is deceptively simple and fluently functional, however, as the madcap desperation escalates to increased door slamming, it is clear that perhaps a sturdier set is needed. Costumes, however, are superb, achieving a strong visual appeal, which is no mean feat in a play of such moral repugnance.

On its release in 1926 Bruckner’s play “Krankheit der Jugend” (Sickness of Youth) must have seemed daring and controversial in its depravity in its thematic touches on (but no real exploration of) drug use, lesbianism, and euthanasia. Even today, it is not a work for the faint of heart and That Production Company should be commended for not shying away from its discomfort.