Much Ado About Nothing

by | Jan 9, 2023

By Nick Pilgrim

Established in 1987, for over thirty-five years the Australian Shakespeare Company has provided discerning audiences with a vast spectrum of quality entertainment.

Known primarily for playing numerous outdoor venues around the country, this season the Melbourne based company’s list of shows for viewers of all ages includes:

  • Alice In Wonderland 
  • Broadway Unplugged 
  • Hello – Erin Jae’s Tribute to Adele 
  • Mozart By Moonlight 
  • Romeo & Juliet 
  • The Burt Bacharach Songbook in Concert 
  • The Wind in The Willows 
  • Tinkerbell And the Dream Fairies 
  • We May Never Meet Again – The Music Of Amy Winehouse 

On Friday night, I saw their most recent outing of Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) is considered the world’s foremost writer and dramatist in the English Language. That the artist’s multitude of plays and poems still hold interest more than 400 years after the creative’s passing, is testament to his versatility and depth in the study of human interaction.

Never once out of fashion, numerous companies around the world continue to stage his plays to high acclaim. Furthermore, it is not uncommon to see Shakespeare’s work reconfigured for modern audiences as well.

A handful of notable cinematic examples include:

  • My Own Private Idaho (based on Henry IV and direct by Gus Van Sant)
  • Ran (based on Macbeth and directed by Akira Kurosawa)
  • Romeo & Juliet (directed by Baz Luhrmann)
  • She’s The Man (based on Twelfth Night and directed by Andy Fickman)
  • Ten Things I Hate About You (based on The Taming of The Shrew and directed by Gil Junger)
  • West Side Story (based on Romeo & Juliet and directed by Stephen Spielberg)

Prior to last week, my only association with Much Ado About Nothing is Kenneth Branaugh’s 1993 costumed blockbuster starring the director (as Benedick), then-wife Emma Thompson (as Beatrice), Robert Sean Leonard (as Count Claudio), and Kate Beckinsale (as Hero). Essentially a story of love at first sight, friendly rivalries tested, unrequited romance kindled, and mistaken identities resolved, to cut a long story short, everything irons itself neatly by the final fade out.

Very much understanding their key demographic with this playful and digestible retelling, the Australian Shakespeare Company has clearly done its homework. In doing so, they keep their merry ball always rolling along. Think the cult television series, Deadwood, and a little Rock Of Ages thrown in for good measure, and you’ll get the idea.

With direction by Glenn Elston OAM and musical direction by Paul Norton, the organisation has turned the story’s basic premise into an inspired battle of the bands between two duelling all-girl and all-boy music groups. Shakespeare’s text is spliced up with a solid handful of original pop tunes and rock ballads (by Norton), some hilarious cultural references, choreographed bursts of physical comedy (by Sue-Ellen Shook), and genuine chemistry shared between the sixteen-strong ensemble cast. Is it any wonder the troupe’s infectious glee savouring every delicious moment, rubbed off on Friday night’s enraptured audience.

With inventive costuming designed by Karla Erenbots, her elegant vision would give eighties icons like Alex Ant, Kate Bush, Billy Idol, or The Bangles a solid run for their money. Erenbots’ work is supported by Kaspa Elston, tasked as the props’ coordinator as well.

The Australian Shakespeare Company could not have picked a better location to set up shop. Located adjacent to the Melbourne Observatory and Jardin Tan, the lawn space feels both expansive and immersive at the same time. Staged like the cross between a wild west farce and a heavy metal rock concert, to Elston’s credit as designer, his fusion of the old and new work in tandem to ingenious effect.

Often at odds with the city’s inclement weather, working outdoors is tricky at the best of times. However, excellent sound design by Andrew Neilson (with support from Will Leslie and Joshua Sunderland) allows for a crystal clear, quality result from start to finish. Complex production and stage management from Peter Amesbury and Claire Duncan respectively, kept proceedings smooth and seamless at all times.

Some of the many standout moments include:

  • Tony Rive (as Verges) and Madeleine Somers (as Dogberry), who do double duty warming up the audience, then bouncing off each other as hosts and roadies throughout the show.
  • Nicolas Cameron’s (as Benedick) and Anna Burgess’ (as Beatrice) shared investment in their character’s emotional journeys. Together, they bring a mixture of stubborn disdain, and romantic abandon which is a joy to watch.
  • Elizabeth Brennan (as Barachio) and Olivia McLeod (as Ursula), engineering a secret tryst which threatens to bring both bands unstuck.
  • Larissa Teale (as Hero) and Alex Cooper (as Claudio), for working their wedding day drama to eleven.
  • As Balthesar, Tony Harvey acted as a one-man support band/guitarist/percussionist on stage for the entire show.

Rounding out the stellar cast are:

  • Syd Brisbane (as Antonio)
  • Jack Green (Swing/Understudy)
  • Kevin Hopkins (as Don John)
  • Heath Ivey-Law (as Conrad)
  • Meg McKibbin (as Margaret)
  • Claire Nicholls (as Leonoto)
  • Hugh Sexton (as Antipholus of Syracuse)

Playing until Saturday February 4, I can’t think of a better way this Summer to experience some top-drawer theatre under the stars.

With a two-hour running time plus one twenty-minute interval, catch Much Ado About Nothing while you can.

Images: Ben Fon

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