Nestled in the lavish yet cozy Fairfax Theatre at The Arts Centre, a four hundred year old play prepares to take on new life. It is Much Ado About Nothing, presented by touring company Bell Shakespeare. Utilizing one of the centre’s smaller spaces lends an immediate intimacy with a minimal but striking tropically-themed set. Designer Pip Runciman has opted for a sort of mid-century modern aesthetic, dangling us in a visual limbo between past and present. Fitting, considering the line the material walks between conservative tradition and newer, more progressive ideas.
Some simple yet clever manipulation of prop and set pieces by the actors allows this basic set-up to serve as the varied settings within Messina. This was a mostly clean and uncomplicated approach, allowing the story to move along at pace. Parts of the set also doubled as storage compartments for props, meaning performers did not have to leave the stage or rely on stagehands. This kind of ingenuity is unsurprising, considering the necessarily portable nature of this touring production.
Peppered throughout the piece are some lovely musical moments, the cast showing themselves to be capable singers with several multi-layered vocal arrangements. The music accompanying them was a little hard to hear at times, but these occasions were still some of the highlights of the production. Balthasar wields a ukulele, giving us a folksy, charming version of ‘Sigh No More’, complete with egg shaker. Once again, these are choices that seem simultaneously modern, whilst also maintaining a timeless quality.
The costume design, also by Pip Runciman, is elegant, colourful and effective. The soldiers look like 21st century private school boys out on a stag do, the ladies dressed in smart, flowery casual. These outfits give us a relatable sense of the status of these characters, as Leonato’s vast estate could not be realistically depicted in the space. Instead, the well-chosen costumes make discerning statements about the sometimes difficult to follow social and interpersonal hierarchies within the play.
The performances in this piece could be conflicting at times – some actors appearing to take a very different approach to the text than others. Perhaps it was simply opening night shakiness, but it seems the direction could have benefited from employing a more consistent and holistic process. At times we were gifted with a mastery of Shakespearean prose – at other times, one could be mistaken for thinking we were witnessing a secondary school rendition of a monologue. In a sense, the results of this were supreme highs and deadening lows, making for something of a whiplash-inducing experience.
Bell Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is a largely enjoyable and faithful take on the original, with some era-appropriate tweaks that serve to keep it relevant for a 2019 audience. The ensemble is well-knit for the most part, and anyone with a soft spot for the rom-com will no doubt find themselves grinning and weeping their way through one of the most well-regarded love stories of our time.