It isn’t particularly original of me to say that the Globe’s special. But it is special. There’s an aura about the place that sweeps you up and takes you in, an identity and an atmosphere that stretches back through hundreds of years of theatrical, oral and storytelling tradition. It’s a literary mecca. Something quintessential and revered. Something somehow sacrosanct. You can spend hours craning your neck around trying to get a better look at the carvings up in the seats, the decorations on the stage, the myriad cracks in the woodwork. It’s hard not to want to soak it all in, to savour every visual bite. Unlike London or Paris or any museum you can name, the Globe retains its romance every time you go.
So it’s hard to separate a play in the Globe from its being in the Globe. Even more so when that play is itself Shakespeare, and that sense of history, of tradition and wonder and theatrical fucking magic, is amplified. But I’m going to do it anyway, because I want to and it’s sort of my job anyway.
You probably know Much Ado About Nothing already. It’s a comedy, one of Shakespeare’s best, and it follows a defined comic set-up; Beatrice is the niece to a respectable nobleman Leonato, is in love with Benedick, a soldier, but of course neither of them are willing to admit it to themselves. Their relationship can only really be described as combative, built off the back of insults and witty gibes. At the same time another soldier falls in love with Hero, Leonato’s daughter. He’s got to woo her, and convince her father of, you know, the quality of his person and all that. Don Pedro, then, Benedick’s nobleman boss, gets to play matchmaker a little, hatching deliciously comic plots to bring these disparate couples together, all as his brother, the embittered bastard Don John conspires against him. It’s Shakespeare, though. So you know it’s good. 400 years have done nothing to diminish the clear-cut crack of his verse. This stuff crackles and pops and flares up with puns and allusions and writerly flairs that’ll make the novelist in you weep with appreciative joy. These lines stumble over themselves in their desire to get out. They’ll grab you by the guts and sweep you up with their manic energy. They’re wicked and witty and funnier than you remember them being.
But you know all that, and you know the plot’s as stellar as anything, you know it’s good enough to survive 4 centuries of inspection, criticism and consideration. It trundles along with a palpable sense of pace, always doing something to suspend and retain and subvert the stakes. None of Hamlet’s narrative inertia here, Much Ado is all about the action. Jokes, plot twists and surprise betrayals come thicker and faster than you can track them, all you can do is strap yourself in, staple your lips into something resembling a smile and enjoy the ride. So the quality of the play is basically a given. What’s really important here is the quality of the adaption. The central question here, is how well The Globe have adapted Much Ado for a modern audience.
And they’ve done that well. Really well. Shockingly well, in fact. It’s fundamentally the same play, but there’s been a slight change in setting. Rather than take place in 16th century Spain, Much Ado About Nothing at the globe takes place during the Mexican Revolution of 1910. A few minor changes aside- Dogberry, for example, is now a nosy American journalist- it doesn’t really affect the story. The Mexican Revolution lingers on the peripheries of the narrative without ever really affecting it. It’s really more of a backdrop for the action.
It’s an excuse for set dressing, for colourful mise en scene and not much else. There’s no real thematic justification for the shift, at least, nothing that’s immediately obvious. And maybe there’s a criticism to be made there. It’s easy to see the change as somehow cynical, another dim attempt to make Shakespeare cool. On paper, it looks and feels and sounds like your a-Level Literature teacher trying to make Shakespeare modern. Shakespeare’s back he might say, whipping off his Cool English Teacher Shades, and this time, he can make Tacos.
But it doesn’t play out like that, not in reality. The Globe, as it exists today, is a bit of a passion project. Standing tickets are as low as a fiver, and if you want to sit down you don’t have to pay more than forty five quid, though prices vary depending on how good your view is. As far as theatre tickets go, that’s cheap. If you’re okay with standing up for three hours, you can see a show -an actual show- for less than you can a movie.
So, this isn’t a commercial thing. This isn’t about the money. This is about the play and the legacy it represents. As a result, Much Ado about Nothing oozes passion. Actors bounce around the stage with more life than is tenable in the August air, Latin musical numbers break up the acts with excitable, foot-stomping aplomb, and comic set-pieces are more than a match for Shakespeare’s original script. The shift here might not be warranted, but it’s fun and it’s quirky and it’s cool. It puts us, as the audience, on the fringes of a genuinely interesting period of history, one we’re not used to seeing in our fiction. There isn’t a cynical bone in this production’s delicious Mexican body. And I think that’s best represented by the acting talent. Claudio, played by Marcello Cruz, is maybe a little overzealous. You never quite believe him, never see him as much more than ‘The Guy Playing Claudio’. For the most part, though, this is top-notch stuff. Matthew Needham Sparkles as Benedick and his onstage chemistry with Beatrice, played by Beatriz Romilly, overflows with the certain something that makes rom-com couplings work.
They’re having a lot of fun, everyone is, and it’s infectious. One moment, which demanded Benedick leap up the ladder of the freight train at the centre of the set, saw him momentarily slip up. He’d have fallen over if he didn’t reach out and grab the rung on time. And a sense of awareness, sudden and beautifully unspoken, swept over the audience. We’d just seen a mistake. But Needham pulled it back, delivering his line with the kind of sheepish smirk that made it all the funnier. The acting talent cements a sense of wonderful freeform fun without ever dropping the narrative reigns. They do a great job.
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Much Ado About Nothing is everything you expect from a Globe production. Energised and creative, passionate and fun. It bristles with a love for the lives recreated and it’ll have you grinning throughout.
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