Briefs: Much Ado About Nothing, Crossed ~ theatre notes

Monday, June 20, 2011

Briefs: Much Ado About Nothing, Crossed

I'm a sucker for Shakespeare's comedies. They reveal his profound knowledge of the stage, and his pleasure in its vulgar tricks and conventions gives us some of the most sublimely funny scenes ever written. In Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare steals freely from a bunch of popular contemporary sources, from Luigi Pasaquaglio's Il Fedele to Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, in which a virtuous woman becomes the victim of vicious intrigue. Transposing the story from tragedy to comedy through the language of courtly wit, he invents two of his most charming lovers, Benedick and Beatrice.

It's a deeply enjoyable play, in which Shakespeare modulates his comedic satire with scenes of real feeling. And John Bell's production for Bell Shakespeare, now on at the Arts Centre, uses his own profound knowledge of stage business to burnish its pleasures to a deep lustre. This is the best production of Bell's that I've seen: exhilarating, vital and surely crafted, with nothing of the fustian.

Stephen Curtis's design sets the action in a quasi-fifties Messina, with full-circle skirts and army uniforms with red sashes. Here the concept runs seamlessly with the play, a fantasia that gives its fantasies life without intruding itself. The action takes place in a basketball court, an institutional setting wrested to other uses of pleasure, with lush Tintoretto-esque wall murals to lift it out of the literal. Alan John's music, performed live, springs organically out of the performances, heightening its sense of carnival. And in the play's tomb scene, a central turning point of death and rebirth, the music becomes ritual itself with a glorious a cappella drawn from male voice Corsican choirs.

Benedick and Beatrice are equals in intelligence and vivacity, sceptics whose condemnation of love arises from their distrust of its sentimental cliches. Their verbal fencing is, as their mischievous friends recognise when they decide to trick the two into marrying each other, the showiest of courtships. They keep each other "waking and in continuall exercise", each pushing the other to more dazzling feats of wit. As in almost every Georgette Heyer romance, all that needs to occur is for each partner to recognise this as attraction, rather than as hostility: what occurs through the play is not a transformation of feeling, but an understanding of it.

This love story runs parallel with the fortunes of Hero (Alexandra Fisher) and Claudio (Sean Hawkins). When Hero is maliciously framed as unfaithful, Claudio mercilessly shames and abandons her in the midst of their wedding. Here, despite his lack of faith in his beloved, he is not portrayed as merely shallow; the insecurity of his passion drives him to a display of cruel machismo. Both couples must negotiate the deception and tricks of others to find the truth of their feeling through the miasma of appearance.

The key is the depth of its casting: every performance is worth the watching. Toby Schmitz and Blazey Best as Benedick and Beatrice create true electric play, the enlivening contrast to the more conventionally drawn lovers of Hero and Claudio. The whole is rich with comic invention: notably Max Gillies's Dogberry, the malapropic watchman, and Sean O'Shea's Don John, a kind of evil Mr Bean in a Mafia suit, the asocial wrench in this otherwise genial machine of sociality. The darker themes of war and malice are threaded lightly, present as shade in a complex comedic texture. A delight.


Chris Summers's Crossed was the second of two plays by this promising young writer to premiere within weeks of each other. It consists of five intersecting monologues, all revolving around the same traumatic event - the police shooting of "the smiley-faced boy" - which loosely recalls the fatal shooting of a 15 year old boy in Northcote in 2008. It's hard to imagine a better production, done in traverse in La Mama's Courthouse Theatre under the direction of Matt Scholten with a more than capable cast. And it shows that Summers has a sure gift for demotic speech, and an ability to create contradictory characters that lift out of stereotype into vital life.

There's a touch of the worthily sociological here, however, that the play doesn't quite escape, and I couldn't help feeling that the play trips over its own ambition. Crossed consists of two distinct parts: an interwoven narration that culminates in the climactic shooting, and an afterword in which each character adds a postscript to their experience. Aside from the final scene, which ends the play powerfully, most of the epilogue could have been cut without hurt: mostly the writing here gives an unnecessary sense of ends being tied up, and it certainly has the clunkiest lines.

The most compelling role is that of Lee (Ioan Roberts), the young gay man with a cyber-crush on the absent protagonist. The other characters sometimes fall into a sense of having been constructed rather than imagined. The rebellious Muslim teen, the aging, ill mother missing her son, the bright wog boy, the surfie nationalist, are all carefully - maybe too carefully - turned to avoid cliche. But maybe what I wondered about most was the tense of the writing: it can slide into a prosaic sense of text written firmly in the past tense, rather than unfolding in a remembered present. As a consequence, there are moments when the writing seems more description than gestus. These are marks of an early work: equally clear is that Summers is a writer to watch.

Picture: Toby Schmitz and Blazey Best as Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing.

Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare, directed by John Bell. Designed by Stephen Curtis, lighting design by Matt Scott, composer Alan John. With Toby Schmitz, Blazey Best, Max Gillies, Tony Llewellyn-Jones, Matthew Walker, Sean O'Shea, Sean Hawkins, Alexandra Fisher, Nathan Lovejoy, Robert Alexander, Arky Michael, Andrew Tighe, Megan O'Connell, Lizzie Schebesta and Tyran Parke. Bell Shakespeare @ the Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, until June 25.

Crossed, by Chris Summers, directed by Matt Scholten. Set and costume design by Kat Chan, lighting design by Lisa Mibus, music and sound design by Pete Goodwin. With Prag Bhatia, Matthew Candeland, Nicholas Linehan, Jenny Lovell and Ioan Roberts. Platform Youth Theatre, Appetite Arts and La Mama, Courthouse Theatre. Closed.


James Andrew Cook said...

Completely agree, this "Much Ado" is one of the best Bell productions I have seen, certainly up there with "Twelfth Night".
Toby Schmitz is quite remarkable. One of the more exciting actors working on our stages. He comes dangerously close to being a massive ham, but all of his schtick is completely justifiable. He and Blazy breathe new life into the text.
It really is a shame that Melbourne won't get to see "Wild Duck", I think seeing Toby and Ewen on stage at the same time (not to mention Eloise Mignon and John Gaden) would have many Melbourne theatre-goers salivating.

xofro said...

James, I was lucky enough to see Wild Duck and it was heartbreaking, leaving me gasping at the end. Much Ado About Nothing was an utter delight - I wanted to hug the whole cast afterwards!

Alison Croggon said...

Yes, The Wild Duck was a stunning work, just devastating. There's a lot of enviable stuff happening in Sydney town this year.