Much Ado About Nothing, Royal Exchange, Manchester - review

Ellie Piercy as Beatrice and Paul Ready as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. Picture: Jonathan Keenan.
Ellie Piercy as Beatrice and Paul Ready as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. Picture: Jonathan Keenan.

Nothing succeeds like excess, reckoned Oscar Wilde, and to some extent that is true of this vivid and physical re-working of the Shakespeare rom-com.

It comes loaded with ideas, from director Maria Aberg, and while some of them work, a great many more tend to get in the way of what is already an intricate and less accessible play to begin with.

In some respects it’s almost a Shakespeare sampler, weighted down with all the plot twists, misconceptions and deliberate deception you find elsewhere, not to mention warring lovers and even a young bride who feigns death.

Aberg shifts it all to some sort of Second World War setting, and while the programme notes also attempt to justify this particular style, the production does not seem to hold with the courage of that conviction.

Some of the music and movement is much more contemporary, and when the comedy constable duo of Dogberry and Verges arrive, to the strains of Cagney and Lacey, but dressed like Ghostbusters, we all seem to be losing the plot.

Admittedly Sandy Foster and Beverley Rudd milk all the knockabout fun they can out of these two nitwits, but there’s already a lot of laughter in the language itself and this is where this Much Ado gets undone.

The script is too often sacrificed to the style, never more so than when the cast don giant masks for the ballroom scene, and the speeches become even more muffled.

There’s nothing indistinct however about Paul Ready’s sly body language in the role of Benedick, or the graceful style with which Ellie Piercy (Beatrice) counters his comedy punches. Designer Merle Hensel has also had a ball, creating some elegant apparel for the latter.

Elsewhere one or two minor characters are dispensed with; Leonata becomes a female governor of Messina; some of the slapstick is still a little too self-conscious; but one or two ideas are effective, even affecting in places.

Much Ado continues until May 3.

David Upton