National Theatre, Lyttelton – until 10 September 2022
A star danced, and under it was Simon Godwin’s joyful, 1930s Riviera production born. Quite apart from the fact that it is nice to have the earnest NT enjoying two outbreaks of frenetic jitterbug dancing at once – Jack Absolute upstairs at the Olivier, and here Much Ado set in the Mediterranean hotel world of Noel Coward – where it feats with unexpected neatness. Here’s the Hotel Messina, at the heart of a society of banter-which-means-its-opposite, of prankish trickery both laughing and lethal, where ladies in daring beach playsuits spar with lads in khaki who are more than up for bantz.
Hotel proprietor, staff and guests interact perfectly: right down to Dogberry’s famously ineffectual night-watch being a night-porter cadre told not to disturb rich drunks but “let them be” till they be sober (David Fynn makes the most of it).
Anna Fleischle’s gorgeous set has balcony, pop-up boudoir and steam bath, and useful beach tents – who needs a shrubbery for overhearing-scenes? As the plotters stagily speak of Beatrice’s hidden passion for him John Heffernan’s irresistible Benedick is even more well-served by the props department having thoughtfully created a fully functional ice-cream cart, capable of housing him on all fours after his Li-lo disguise is removed. This enables the pranksters to deploy syrups and sprinkles, lavishly, so he can emerge well-coated to declare his conversion to a nicely dismissive Beatrice. Perfect. The lovelorn Heffernan’s next appearance is in a blue face-pack in the steam bath.
Beatrice (Katherine Parkinson channelling a young Penelope Keith, poshly witty) climbs down the wall from the balcony with equal effect, until at the interval the French family in front of me rapturously exclaimed that it was “marrant..tellement leger!”
Light it is, gloriously so, but for all the clowning and farcical devices Shakespeare is thinking, as ever, about men and women and their positions in society, about shame and forgiveness and redemption: the rise of the ‘dead’ Hero even prefiguring The Winter’s Tale. So the shaming of Ioanna Kimbook’s Hero is properly shocking, and I have rarely seen the shocked intensity of Beatrice and Benedick’s declaration so shiveringly credible in the aftermath of that shock. Rarely does her bald “Kill Claudio” get met with a laugh, which was unnerving: often it is a dark sudden shock rather than an absurdity. But Parkinson’s subsequent outbreak hauls us back into the proper horror of what shaming meant in Shakespeare’s day.
An added frisson is added by the casting of Eben Figuerido as Claudio: his look of dark, southern uncompromising nobility is set against the sunnier, drily modern manner and look of the flirtatious laughing Heffernan, who will probably be getting some proposals from the front row after a few well-directed glances. Claudio on the other hand properly looks the kind of man who would be too easily insulted by female looseness.
Talking of which, there’s a wonderful moment when Rufus Wright’s horrified Leonato is getting over his shock at his daughter’s shaming by necking cocktails, and an infuriated Antonia – Wendy Kweh – takes the latest one off him and pulls him together, with an angry feminist speech I had quite forgotten about. Just as good as Beatrice’s challenging snarl about “manhood melted into courtesies”.
That’s the pleasure of a production like this: “leger” as the French group said, and gleefully farcical at times. For thanks partly to the unconventional setting, often it reminds you of Shakespeare’s extraordinary moments too easily forgotten. It’s like the most painless imaginable form of close textual analysis…
Oh, and Dario Rossetti-Bonell’s swing band is pretty good too. It’s selling well. It’s worth it, usual big discount for oldies, under-18s and some for under-25s, and even from the “restricted view narrower seat” bit of the stalls you can perfectly well see Heffernan peering from under the ice-cream cart.
Box office nationaltheatre.org.uk. To 10 Sept.