BWW REVIEW: Toxic Masculinity And Outdated Views On Women Are Highlighted In Bell Shakespeare's Modern Staging Of Comic Love Story MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING.
Thursday 24th October 2019, 7:30pm, Playhouse Sydney Opera House
James Evans' (Director) contemporary presentation of Shakespeare's MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING gives the late 16th Century romantic comedy a modern sound and style while reinforcing that modern society is still battling with toxic masculinity and archaic views on women. Arriving at the Sydney Opera House after 3 months of touring the country, this is one of Shakespeare's easier to digest works as a farcical love story but may sit oddly with modern audiences.
Designer Pip Runciman has created a space that doubles for the internal and external scenes at or near Leonato (David Whitney), the Governor of Messina's estate. The elements large green leaf print curtains on brass frames and broadleaf potplants could be lifted from a modern furniture and design catalogue and the costuming drawn from the trendy investment bankers, socialites, and more streetwise lower echelons of a shadier society.
As with other Bell Shakespeare presentations, Australian accents are adopted in the effort to make the Elizabethan English more accessible while also drawing on the connection of accents to different sectors of society. The military leader come matchmaker Don Pedro (Danny Ball) is presented with a cocky arrogance reminiscent of the young men from new money who like to talk up their masculinity and think it is still ok to objectify women. The lovesick Claudio is more immature so Will McDonald gives him a hyperactivity that tends towards camp as he ensures that younger man is seen as trying to fit in with the 'lads' but also reeks of spoilt entitlement. Duncan Ragg ensures that Benedick is seen as more intelligent and eloquent with comparably more refined sensibilities so as to be a good verbal sparring partner with Beatrice (Zindzi Okenyo). The "Bastard Prince" Don John's (Paul Reichstein) minions Borachio (Will McDonald) and Conrade (Vivienne Awosoga) are given 'bogan' tones to draw on the stereotype of people more driven by money than morals. Generally these accents work but at times, the poetry of Shakespeare's language does not sit easily with a broad Australian tongue.
Evans plays up the misogyny of the male players who seem to think nothing of manipulating the lives of the people around them, particularly the women who, in their society, are still handed over in marriage as goods or chattels would be and are not afforded their own voice. Their attitude towards women is presented with a vulgarity that is unfortunately still familiar and would sit uneasily with anyone who believes that there should be consent and respect in a relationship. The strong-willed Beatrice is given a power but the direction has it feel like she gives up her values too easily, turning coquettish at the overhearing of the lies manufactured for the men's amusement. The role of Dogberry has been gender swapped to be presented by Mandy Bishop who does well with the absurd role but this also plays to the divide of having the men seen as having the power and the women being reduced to either bumbling, as is the case with Dogberry, vapid, as is the case with Hero (Vivienne Awosoga) and Margaret (Marissa Bennett) or easily turned as with Beatrice.
Whilst the performers do well with the material, the direction stops the work from providing a definitive stance but rather seems to be dismissing the men's behavior as ok in the same way men have been let off with "boys will be boys" and that there is no real repercussions for sullying an innocent woman's reputation as she takes him back in the end. Possibly the best way to view this production of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING is to consider it as a portrait of a society that we are still wanting to change.