Tobacco Factory, Bristol – under 9 November 2019￼
There was a worry when founding artistic director Andrew Hilton announced his retirement from Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory and the company found itself shifted from the spring into the autumn by the Tobacco Factory programming that it may have been the beginning of the end for the company. Thankfully, the landing of Elizabeth Freestone to direct the work since Hilton has left seems to have been something of a coup.
Following a highly entertaining, though sometimes scattershot dive into Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing hits a higher level of excellence again. It is SATTF operating at their best, clean, concise storytelling that places the actor at the heart of what they do. You often hear of work that is described as ideal for a Shakespeare novice. What is harder to do is produce work that appeals to virgin and connoisseur alike. This ticks all the boxes and provides their best work since Romeo and Juliet introduced Paapa Essiedu as a star in the making.
Bristol seems to be going through a period of assessing what regional theatre’s USP should be at the moment and finding that a key element is in the nurturing and support of local talent. Graduates of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School dominate the cast list; from the more experienced leads of Dorothea Myer-Bennett and Geoffrey Lumb to newer standout graduates Hannah Bristow, Georgia Frost and Alex Wilson.
The city is lucky to have such an excellent school at its heart and the classical nous is clear for all to see, with actors who can confidently playoff and riff confidently on the iambic. One of the great things about the company, which may be lost when it moves on (it plays Wilton’s Music Hall in November) is the sense of family and returning to catch-up time and time again with old friends.
Most of the cast are repeat returnees and though 13 may be unlucky for some it’s not for Chris Bianchi whose 13th exploration for them is producing his finest work to date as Leonato: he charts Hero’s father’s journey with subtle sympathy so that when he disowns his daughter when he thinks she has been unfaithful to her husband-to-be it hits him and us with the force of a sledgehammer.
His detailed work bleeds into the whole ensemble. Too often the work feels like a canvas for the two leads to dominate, but this production – more than any other I have seen of it – adds detail beyond the caricature. Take Zachary Powell’s Don Pedro, who here turns the part into a bellowing robust captain displaying deep humanity beneath the blokey sheen.
The real coup is in attracting Myer-Bennett back to the company and her Beatrice is a delight. Without adding anything particularly new to the role, she makes her irresistible just by finding the truth in her every utterance. From deploying her wounding wit in her sparring matches to the bubbling up of long-suppressed emotions as she discovers that Benedick truly loves her, she has a knack of bringing an audience onside, most particularly when she sits in the audience and delivers her soliloquy directly to a punter.
Her command of ‘kill Claudio’ still elicited the usual laugh from an audience unsure of how to receive the change of temperature, but there was ice cold specificity behind it, demonstrating a woman not to be trifled with when it comes to matters of the heart.
Lumb initially struggles to keep up but comes into his own during the galling scene, as he energetically flings himself between hiding spots to ever hilarious effect. His is a Benedick who is more at ease in his declarations of love than the world-weary armour of wit that we initially encounter. By the end, he is a more than worthy match for her.
Freestone’s production doesn’t quite get everything right. She can’t quite nail the laughs with the watchmen and there is a sense of the air leaving the room after the brilliantly realised disruption of the wedding. It could do with one final knock-out moment. Still, this is a mighty fine piece of work. On a chilly, Autumnal night, when the football made parking all but impossible, there is no greater praise than people leaving with a jig in their step and a song in their heart. The city’s love affair with the company continues.