Much Ado About Nothing - Review - Theater - New York Times

Published: March 30, 1998, Monday

''Boys, apes, braggarts, jacks, milksops!'' The insults are flung in the heat of rage, but the fellows at whom they're directed, though officers and gentlemen all, deserve every one of these slurs in Cheek by Jowl's probing new production of ''Much Ado About Nothing,'' now at the Majestic Theater of the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

The men returning from war in Shakespeare's jaunty comedy of sexual jousting have always been a rowdy lot. But in this latest interpretation, directed by Declan Donnellan and designed by Nick Ormerod, they have a common emotional age of approximately 12. From the moment they arrive in the idyllic town of Messina, in a din of stomping boots and whooping laughter, it's clear that the women who live there would be well advised to put away anything fragile. That includes their hearts.

The consideration that men will be boys, an inevitable element of ''Much Ado,'' is treated more with sober cynicism than with affectionate indulgence in this bold, thoughtful and almost clinical reading of Shakespeare's beloved comedy. Set in what appears to be the aristocratic echelons of Edwardian England, Mr. Donnellan and Mr. Ormerod explore the wide, dangerous chasm in a class brought up to deal with the opposite sex only in formal terms.

The young, fastidiously groomed soldiers, who might have stepped straight out of Sandhurst, are obviously more comfortable wrestling with one another than romancing maidens. Even in courtly moments, they're apt to pull their ladies by the arms like children tugging brusquely at toy wagons. As for the play's heroines, the outspoken Beatrice and the demure Hero, they're stiff and nervous beneath their wasp-waisted period gowns. The erotic anxiety here is as thick as clotted cream.

It has been announced that this touring ''Much Ado'' is the last production of Cheek by Jowl, represented at the Brooklyn Academy in recent years with a benchmark all-male ''As You Like It'' and an electrifying ''Duchess of Malfi,'' before the London-based company takes a sabbatical. For that reason alone, and there are many others, you should definitely see this latest effort, which concludes its run here on Sunday.

But don't go expecting the sort of cheerful, cantering frolic one associates with performances of ''Much Ado,'' including Kenneth Branagh's festive, sensual movie version, in which the romantic sparring partners Benedick and Beatrice emerge as a Shakespearean Tracy and Hepburn. Cheek by Jowl unleashes a chilling wind through sunny Messina, confronting the darkness and even cruelty that are always present in ''Much Ado'' but usually passed over lightly. Although often broadly funny, in ways that don't shrink from slapstick, the production makes a strong, sober case for the affinities of ''Much Ado'' with such troubling, unclassifiable comedies as ''Measure for Measure.''

The approach has casualties. You can't help feeling that Shakespeare had more love and sympathy for his characters than this version reflects. The measured, analytical quality of the performance can make the pace drag. And the evening's tart sensibility sometimes slips into sourness.

But along with the elegant inventiveness of staging that has become its trademark, Cheek by Jowl always provides a careful interpretive focus that forces you to reconsider familiar classics. Just when you're starting to think this ''Much Ado'' is too cool and conceptual by half, there's a sudden, breathtaking flash of illumination. How often does that happen when you're watching Shakespeare?

The evening begins with a less than celebratory dance. (The director of movement is Jane Gibson.) Set to the composer Paddy Cunneen's rendering of the play's central ballad, the promenade is rigid, formal and self-conscious and is interrupted by the dyspeptic thunder of distant gunfire. When Leonato (Gregory Floy), the head of the household the soldiers are coming to visit, speaks his opening lines describing their imminent arrival, it is with unexpected solemnity.

What follows, a choice example of the cinematic cross-cutting that Mr. Donnellan specializes in, eloquently establishes the opposition of martial and domestic worlds. As Leonato and the women of his house discuss the heroic members of the troops led by the Prince, Don Pedro (Stephen Mangan), those men are seen cheering, teasing and roughhousing on the other side of the stage, their jubilance made slightly ominous by being performed in slow motion.

Then these worlds intersect with a muffled clash, and so begin the twin tales of two rocky romances: between the young Count Claudio (Bohdan Poraj) and Hero (Sarita Choudhury), Leonato's daughter, and between Benedick (Matthew Macfadyen) and Beatrice (Saskia Reeves), sworn enemies who delight in nothing so much as baiting each other in ways that sting more than usual here.

It is evident the men don't have a clue about handling women, except possibly prostitutes. That the party at which the wooing of Hero begins is a masked ball takes on special significance. This sort of business requires disguises, as well as lots of inhibition-blurring Champagne. And in this ''Much Ado,'' the sunlit raillery of the next day is tainted by the characters' crashing hangovers.

Similarly, Don Pedro's courtship of Hero for Claudio is presented with frank disgust. As played by Mr. Mangan, the prince is a petulant man's man, a product of upper-class boarding schools with a homoerotic affinity for Mr. Poraj's callow Claudio. (There's a very funny moment when Claudio, having been ''given'' Hero, rushes into the prince's arms rather than those of his newly betrothed.) Benedick stands apart from the other soldiers by virtue of his prickly, slightly clownish self-consciousness, a feeling compounded by Mr. Macfadyen's striking resemblance to John Cleese.

Hero, played by the ravishing Ms. Choudhury with unfortunately mumbled diction, registers disturbingly as a sacrificial victim, although one could do without the preachy scene in which she's corseted into breathlessness on her wedding day. Beatrice has been reconceived as a brittle bluestocking, and Ms. Reeves, in the evening's standout performance, executes the conceit with style and intelligence, finding Freudian anxiety beneath the flinty bravado of a self-declared new woman.

Pay special attention when Ms. Reeves, in a stunning dress out of a Sargent painting, proudly declares her confirmed spinsterhood, holding a cigarette like a Virginia Slims model. And listen to her reading of Beatrice's famous answer to the prince when he tells her she must have been born in a merry hour, a line usually delivered with brisk gaiety. ''No, sure my lord, my mother cried,'' she says, with an unsettled anger that bespeaks infinite fear of sex and childbirth. She continues, with wild defiance, ''But then there was a star danced.''

Mr. Donnellan takes some perfectly excusable liberties in rearranging, reassigning (even, in two cases, changing characters' sexes) and streamlining the text. But there is one dominant problem. While the evening takes great pains to establish the conflicted underpinnings of the play's lighter first half, it shifts into more conventional comedy for the darker second part, and not just in the scenes involving the Malaprop-ish constable Dogberry (Derek Hutchinson, who wisely plays the role straight). It's as if the production just gives up on synthesizing all the problems it has laid out.

There are still calculated dissonant notes in the harmonious conclusion, with a brooding awareness of the unhappy, unassimilated outsiders, who here include the prince as well as his evil brother, Don John (Paul Goodwin). And given what's come before, you can't help that thinking that Beatrice and Benedick have miles to go before finding compatibility.


By William Shakespeare; directed by Declan Donnellan; designer, Nick Ormerod; composer and musical director, Paddy Cunneen; director of movement, Jane Gibson; lighting by Judith Greenwood; company stage manager, Simon Sturgess; production manager, Anthony Alderson. A Cheek by Jowl production. Presented by Brooklyn Academy of Music, Bruce C. Ratner, chairman; Harvey Lichtenstein, president and executive producer. At the Majestic Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn.

WITH: Matthew Macfadyen (Benedick), Saskia Reeves (Beatrice), Sarita Choudhury (Hero), Stephen Mangan (Don Pedro), Paul Goodwin (Don John), Bohdan Poraj (Claudio), Gregory Floy (Leonato), Derek Hutchinson (Dogberry), Andrew Price (Balthasar), Justin Salinger and Mark Lacey (Conrade) and Zoe Aldrich (Margaret).