Photo: Cesare De Giglio
I often wonder how it would have felt to be in The Rose, The Globe or the Curtain four centuries ago when the great dramas of the day premiered. Imagine the audience anticipation and engagement when they heard, say Hamlet, Lear or The Duchess of Malfi for the very first time. The probably weren’t polite or deferntial but I bet you’d have got a raw, heartfelt reaction. Well, move on 400 years and you get a whiff of something similar each year at The Globe when 30,000 teenagers from London and Birmingham secondary schools get free tickets for a sparky, abridged version of a Shakespeare play – the annual Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank project.
This year’s play is Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Michael Oakley and – although the audience was smaller for an evening performance than for matinees I’ve seen in the past – the auditorium was, as usual, seething with excitement. Then the play started and, suddenly there was rapt silence apart from the odd gasp, appreciative “oooh”, spontaneous burst of applause and lots of laughter – they were being a real audience in the original meaning of the word. They were listening intently.
Ben Mansfield is a top notch Benedick. Looking like a young Colin Firth his acting is convincingly natural – whether he’s one of the famous spats with Beatrice (Fiona Hampton), wriggling round the stage pretending to be unseen during the gulling scene or dropping all pretence and being the decent chap that we know he is really at the horror of Hero’s (Aruhan Galieva) plight.
Hampton’s Beatrice works well too. In this modern dress production on which all the “noble” characters are clearly toff-types. she struts crossly about the stage in holey jeans, a magnificent red dress for the party and an elegant frock (Designer: Andrew D Edwards) for the abortive wedding. She has a delightful way of throwing out her verbal barbs and then waving at the audience every time she scores a point. Eventually she shows us that most of it is an act and is really moving in her concern for Hero – and the eventual acknowledgement that, after all that, Benedick really is someone she can fancy.
Galieva is suitably bland as the maligned Hero. And she left me wondering even more than usual in this troubling play why on earth she forgives Claudio (and her father) for the appalling way she is treated. I had to clamp my mouth shut to prevent myself yelling out “Oh walk away , you silly girl. Go and find yourself a man who will trust you”. Cue for much discussion back in all those secondary schools I’m sure – the conventions of semi-arranged marriage are still alive and well in our 21st society, after all.
The supporting cast are strong and every word of the pared down dialogue – whether in prose or verse – is a clear part of the story telling. There’s a band on the upper gallery (it leads Tyler Fayose as Don Pedro in through the groundlings at the beginning too) Witty work on the sousaphone, courtesy of musician, Richard Henry is a high spot. It enhances both the dance scene and the traditional end-of-play jig – except that here it’s a cheerful hip hop, choreographed by Etta Murfitt to use the Globe’s big playing space entertainingly.
This Much Ado is a jolly good 90 minutes of theatre which sparkles with humour while, but at the same time, doesn’t buck the big questions. And it’s a joy to see a young audience so attuned.
Photo: Cesare De Giglio