|Happy ever after? Claudio and Hero|
It takes a certain faith in the enduring appeal of the bard to open a season with a Shakespearean comedy, immediately after closing the preceding season with another.
Sam West tackles the role of Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, the first production of his tenure as The Crucible's Artistic Director. Those audiences who enjoyed the theatre's 70s style A Comedy of Errors in June will find all the familiar plot devices in place: mistaken identities, misunderstandings and all manner of misadventures on the rocky road to marriage.
Benedick is one of a group of military men returning from an unspecified battle to engage in a far merrier war of words with his sparky sparring partner Beatrice (Claire Price). Meanwhile his comrade Claudio (Nicholas Burns) has fallen in love with Beatrice's far more modest and girlish cousin Hero (Georgina Rich). The stage is set for a happy wedding until a character with nefarious intentions throws a spanner into the works and seems to ruin Hero's reputation and prospects.
|A romantic moment: Beatrice and Benedick|
In contrast to the very specific and stylised earlier production, director Josie Rourke has settled for a vaguely homely Meditterannean location, with a set that is redolent of a grand Tuscan holiday villa. The period hovers around the 19th century - affording the handsome soldiers some rather attractive and fashionable brass buttoned uniforms but adding little in the way of context to the play.
The appearance of the local constabulary and watchmen in the guise of enthusiastic Salvation Army dames complete with Mary Poppins style umbrellas is a slightly baffling innovation, which, although inherently comic slows an already patchy pace.
The slowness of the complex comic setup is a common problem in these plays, but here it seems to be overcompensated for with a confusing gabbling of the verse in the first few scenes. The unevenness is a shame because, when it gets into its stride, there is much to recommend this production, not least some lovely comic timing from both Benedick and Beatrice and all of the female characters of the household.
Once Benedick is broken away from the macho military group by becoming ensnared in a romantic plot, Sam West imbues his character with enough simultaneous comedy, self-deprecation and decency to qualify as rather dashing in a matinee-idol sort of way. He even does a great shoulder-first trot off stage when on an urgent mission, which could come across as camp in a less assured actor, but will probably multiply the romantic hero factor here.
|Sally Army style - Hugh Oatcake and 1st Watchwoman|
Those unfamiliar with the play should not be misled: the subject matter is not as inconsequential as the title might suggest. Hero's plight as a woman slandered is quite affecting, even if Nicholas Jones' perfomance as her outraged father Leonato teeters on the fine line between hysterical and OTT.
Claire Price is an energetic and likeable Beatrice, who brings forcefulness to each scene. The Chesterfield-born actress (birthplaces are revealed in the programme, for what purpose it is not clear) is powerful in the character's most vigorous speeches such as the famous 'If I were a man' and has a playful chemistry with her fellow romantic lead.
In comparison to the stellar central couple, some of the characters - like the other men of war - blur and fade a little. But, providing the pace settles, the starry romcom flavour and overall feelgood factor should more than compensate.
Much Ado About Nothing is at The Crucible Theatre, Sheffield until 5th November 2005
All photographs by Catherine Ashmore.