By William Shakespeare
In spite of the title, this play is about something, the perennial mateship game. And although there’s plenty of ado here, there’s not too much of it, for this is one Shakespearean comedy that’s easy to take, mainly because the sharpness of the dialogue and the biting wit of Beatrice is very much in tune with modern tastes.
Beatrice is the prime example of the young woman who’s fooling herself, because we know from the very beginning that she and Benedick are meant for each other, even though in this casting Benedick isn’t really fit to kiss her shoe. For Rob Pensalfini plays him as an amiable dolt, a kind of Falstaff-in-the-making, and it’s hard to take him seriously as a suitor for such a feisty woman as Beatrice.
Still, when did commonsense ever enter into falling in love? It’s as pointless to complain about this coupling as it is to argue that Claudio, who rejected the blameless virgin Hero (yes, in classical literature it’s a girl’s name remember Hero and Leander?) on the strength of a malicious ruse, could either deserve or be forgiven by her. For this is romantic comedy, and has about as much relevance to real life as day-time soap opera. It’s entertainment not-so-pure and not-so-simple, and the only reason for intelligent people to see it is because it’s 400-year-old proof that the world was ever thus. Hey-nonny-no!
I haven’t had time to check what liberties Rob Pensalfini has confessed to taking with the text, but I do applaud him for making the low comic business mercifully brief, and for simplifying the complex plot to a level where it isn’t too brain-taxing, as so much Shakespearean comedy often be. It’s sit-back-and-laugh territory, and as there’s no threat of total disaster after all the derring-do at the crossroads, we can relax in the knowledge that all will be well that ends well, as it should in classical comedy. It’s just that here not even the villains are punished the suspicious Claudio is offered another girl in place of the one he has rejected, and even Don Pedro’s wicked sister seems to escape whatever it is that she deserves.
Many of the extraneous characters have been written out without destroying the guts of the play the surly Don John, Don Pedro’s embittered brother, has been changed into a wicked sister, Juanita. It was here that I began to get a little confused, especially as Leonato himself has had a sex change and appears as Leonata, mother rather than father of the hapless Hero (she’s a girl, remember!). Never mind it all makes sense in context and only purists will complain about this wicked transmogrification of characters. Gender-bending seems to be a penchant of the QSE, but it doesn’t really matter, because we have it on the greatest authority that the play is, after all, the thing, and what a play this is.
I was a little puzzled about the down-playing of the Beatrice-Benedick plot, though, because this self-deluding couple are one of the finest love creations in all western literature, and are surely the main focus of the play, and speak more convincingly to a modern audience than the young romantic lovers Hero and Claudio can ever do except to viewers of soap opera.
Director Jo Loth has set the play in the late 1930s/early 1940s, which gives “costume builder” (now there’s a term) G.R. Blazley a chance to shine, and I especially liked the shoes and hair-do’s that are straight out of Foyle’s War. There is a little too much unnecessary stage business, fussing around with picnic rugs and unused drinks trolleys, but that’s probably better than making the play static with too little action.
And the cast overall are in good voice, understand their lines, and generally make sense of what could be a difficult text. They interact very well with each other, even when they have no part to play in the action, neither standing around liked stunned mullets nor up-staging the other actors.
All in all, it was a good ensemble piece, with everyone displaying confident stage presence, and the young audience, who didn’t seem to be school students (and for this relief, much thanks), absolutely loved it. So you could say that the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble have, between them, again given us a skirmish of good wit.
Director: Jo Loth
Designer: Angela Ponting
Music: Gavin Edwards, Stephen Mackie, Rob Pensalfini
Playing 4–28 October 2007: evening sessions Thursday – Sunday 7pm, matinees Saturday and Sunday 2pm
Duration: 2 hours 15 minutes with one interval
See also: Brisbane actor nobly suffers slings and harassing of outraged unfortunate