MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING by William Shakespeare, directed by Christopher Newton (Stratford). At the Festival Theatre, Stratford. Runs in rep to October 27. $49-$95, srs $35-$55, stu $15-$25. 1-800-567-1600, stratfordfestival.ca. See listing. Rating: NNN
Much Ado About Nothing may not be Shakespeare's most successful comedy - some parts are heavy-handed, regardless of the skill of the actors - but the Stratford production has some memorable strengths.
The central figures are Beatrice (Deborah Hay) and Benedick (Ben Carlson), whose clever war of words keeps the laughs flowing whenever they're onstage. Tricked by their family and friends into believing that the other's snide remarks are merely a cover for a hidden love, each turns quickly into an amorous admirer of the other.
There's a subplot involving the relationship between Beatrice's ingénue cousin, Hero (Bethany Jillard), and Benedick's fellow soldier, the young Claudio (Tyrone Savage), one that has its dark side before turning sunny at the show's end. As that subplot is played out, it gives us further insight into the complexity of the central characters' personalities.
Less successful is a series of scenes involving the town watch, headed by the self-impressed, word-mangling Dogberry (Richard Binsley), who help bring the action to a happy conclusion. While the performances here aren't a problem - Binsley, for instance, has fine comic timing, as does Roy Lewis as Dogberry's sidekick, Verges - the writing isn't as entertaining as, for instance, that of the rustics in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Director Christopher Newton's pacing of their first-act scenes is also a bit slow, robbing the watch of some of their humour.
But Newton's work generally buoys the production, for he has an obvious affection for the material and the characters. He even finds a touch of sympathy for the play's villain, Don John (Gareth Potter), held under the thumb of his older brother, Don Pedro (Juan Chioran).
Newton sets his production in a semi-fictional Brazil around the turn of the 20th century; designer Santo Loquasto gives us a sense of nearby beaches and fills the stage with palm trees and dancing figures, who swirl to Jonathan Monro's Latin music around an elegant winding staircase that's as sinuous as their movements by choreographer Jane Johanson.
Happily, the warmth of the show goes beyond the setting. Some of the secondary performances never go beyond stock characterizations, but at the other end of the spectrum is Chioran's Don Pedro, commanding as a military man and quite touching in his brief emotional encounters with Beatrice. Just as positive is Claire Lautier, who makes a sensually flirtatious Margaret, an unwitting accomplice in Don John's plot against Hero and Claudio.
Savage and Jillard are charming in the roles, he quick to lose hope when he thinks Hero is not his, and she utterly dashed when Claudio doubts her purity. They're a totally believable and innocent young couple in love.
But no production of Much Ado is successful without exceptional work in the two central roles, and Hay and Carlson, partners in real life, provide it.
Carlson is especially adept at handling the language, using pauses as well as words to establish a Benedick whose seeming misogyny is a thin cover for his desire to love. He can make an emotional statement even in the way he exhales.
Hay, one of Canada's finest comic actors, creates a Beatrice initially bookish as well as sharp-tongued; hurt by Benedick in the past, she doesn't want to suffer again, but still finds herself transported by the possibility of love. Hay gets some great and deserved laughs with her physical antics, too.
The gulling scenes in which they're "convinced" to fall in love are wonderfully funny, but just as important is their relationship's sudden turn to sombreness when Claudio accuses Hero of infidelity. Both they and Newton's direction give seriousness to Beatrice's desire for revenge, with guilt, anger and shame part of the mix.