What may be the world’s original rom-com, Much Ado About Nothing, is best known as the tale of Beatrice and Benedick, who exchange cutting remarks until they wind up falling in love. This new Bell Shakespeare production, helmed by Associate Director James Evans, doesn’t lose an opportunity to show Beatrice (Zindzi Okenyo) as a strong, independent woman. Time and again, the text gives her the wit and courage to point out the failings not just of Benedick (Duncan Ragg) but men in general.

Zindzi Okenyo and Duncan Ragg in Bell Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Photo © Clare Hawley

This production also works hard to reveal the misogyny and double standards inherent in the more troubled, even tragic romance between Claudio (Will McDonald) and Hero (Vivienne Awosoga), who is falsely accused of being a loose woman. From Beatrice’s eye-rolling early on when Hero brightly tells her fiancé that she’s a virgin, to a telling slap in the face toward the end, and the young men’s suggestive talk and gestures in between, this Much Ado About Nothing makes it clear there’s something rotten with the state of gender politics in Messina. That slap lingers in the mind as the players gather not so much for an all’s well that ends well fa-la-la finale, but a hopeful musical rendition of Shakespeare’s 116th sonnet.

This feminist sensibility is also evident in the gender rebalancing of the cast: not only women cast in several male roles but, as has been Bell’s want of late, male roles switched to female ones. By changing a few references of ‘brother’ to ‘sister’, Antonio, Hero’s uncle and brother of Leonato (David Whitney), very plausibly becomes a woman. However, having the same actor, Suzanne Pereira, simultaneously embody another male authority figure, the friar, is a theatrical conceit that may cause confusion for some audiences of Bell Shakespeare’s 2019 national touring production.

Marissa Bennet, David Whitney and Mandy Bishop in Bell Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Photo © Clare Hawley

More successful is having McDonald switch between Claudio and Borachio before our eyes at a critical moment. The characters seem to merge briefly, and we are made to wonder who is more guilty: the rogue paid to give credence to the lies said about Hero, or the nobleman who claimed to love her only to publicly shame and reject her?

The capable cast is ably led by Okenyo, who plays Beatrice with measured confidence, and Ragg, who shows a flair for comedy as Benedick. Almost everyone else plays two characters, with the stand-out being Mandy Bishop. Her uncomplicated female take on the minstrel Balthasar is pleasantly done, but her perhaps gender-fluid Dogberry is the comic highlight. Sometimes nipping around showily on a flashy scooter, Bishop makes the most of this self-important policeman’s dialogue, and gently polishes her performance with clever timing and physical humour.

Bell Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Photo © Clare Hawley

As this Much Ado needs to quickly bump in and out of many and varied venues, from Darwin to Dubbo, Pip Runciman’s set is necessarily simple. Essentially it’s a metal framework suggesting a pergola, and a curtain backdrop with a bold leafy design that reflects numerous potted plants on castors – which are moved around the stage for no apparent reason. Runciman’s costumes suggest the late 80s/early 90s, and have a sun-kissed Mediterranean feel that borders on bling for playboy prince Don Pedro, interpreted with a suitable touch of sleaze by Danny Ball.

Although pace and tension briefly sag here and there, with a few missed beats on opening night, overall this Much Ado About Nothing does a lot with little more than the text (but, of course, what a text it is). It’s at its best during some comic scenes and moments, and generally succeeds in making Shakespeare understandable and relatable to modern Australian audiences, wherever and whoever they may be.

Bell Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is at Arts Centre Melbourne until July 27, before touring nationally until November 24


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