Theatre Royal, Bath
Opened 5 March, 2004

The Bremer Shakespeare Company consider it their obligation to remake the bard afresh every time: not only a new translation for each German-language production, but a liberal attitude towards incorporating extrinsic material, combined with minimal sets and full house lighting to keep the audience directly engaged with the performance as performance.

Peter Lüchinger's Much Ado About Nothing doesn't quite go the whole hog on all of these ideas. The translation question doesn't arise, since this co-production with the Bath Shakespeare Festival casts two German actresses and three British actors (plus a Québecoise musician, of whom more later) and plays in English. A bare-stage aesthetic is somewhat little at odds with the gorgeous interior décor of Bath's Theatre Royal, so they compromise by half-dimming the house lights, with adjustments up or down for particular sequences.

But there's extra material in there, to be sure. Ricky Fearon, playing Don Pedro of Aragon as a Moorish potentate, gets to quote a Berber proverb or two; when he doubles as a blind friar, he also gets a snatch of the Book of Revelation. As the comic duo Dogberry and Verges, Will Thorp and Fearon chuck out all the Shakespearean lines and devise their own routines, which I'm afraid pull off the achievement of being slightly less funny than the original clowning is today.

The ideas are always intriguing and often admirable; it's in the execution that they fall down. The central focus in this romantic comedy is on the evenly matched wits Benedick and Beatrice, tricked into acknowledging their love for each other; here, Ian Shaw is always simply too actorly as a permanently smirking Benedick, and Annette Ziellenbach is forced to expend too much effort on an uncomfortable language to acquit herself properly in terms of characterisation. More vivacious is Susanne Höhne as Leonata, given a sex change from the Bard's original in order to create a third courting couple; indeed, she and Don Pedro prove more engaging than either Beatrice and Benedick or Claudio and Hero (both played in travesty, by Ziellenbach and Thorp respectively). And it is surely a major misjudgement to have Höhne play the villainous henchman Borachio in a way that, even if not intended, suggests a bigoted caricature of a sly, grasping Jew.

Periodically, one's attention wanders to Lou Simard, whose battery of percussion instruments is augmented by a remarkable device of her own construction: a huge wheel with tunable radial strings, which she plays by bowing, hammering, plucking and even with a bottleneck slide.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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