First published in The Times, Monday June 20 2016
Sometimes the power of theatre to transport its audience can be instantaneous. As we make our way, still dripping from a June shower, into the auditorium of Dundee Rep, Ken Harrison’s set of rusticated gold pillars and wrought iron archways, made to gleam by Mike Robertson’s lighting, produces a palpably warming, comforting effect. People can be seen basking their faces in the glow. It’s like the start of a much-needed summer holiday.
If this staging enhances the buoyant spirit of Irene Macdougall’s production of Much Ado About Nothing, Harrison’s set, with its various levels, doorways, windows and strategically placed columns is the perfect backdrop for a play based around overheard conversations, misunderstandings and deceptions.
Pic: Tommy Ga Ken Wan
In a production staged to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, clad in the colours and styles of Renaissance Sicily, the Bard’s depictions of romantic love, whether of the cupid’s arrow variety or stumbling, hesitant negotiation, remain effervescent. Emily Winter and Robert Jack are well matched as Beatrice and Benedick, disdainful to each other in public and tricked by their friends into confessing their love for one another.
Jack’s rendition of Benedick’s change of heart on marriage is a particular highlight: a precisely timed stand-up routine that has the audience hooting with appreciation. As Beatrice Winter matches wit with warmth, offering occasional glimpses beneath her practised poise, without ever falling back on sourness or sarcasm. The physical comedy of the scenes in which each learns of the other’s feelings is especially well realised, while the point at which they finally lower their defences is quietly effective and moving.
Pic: Tommy Ga Ken Wan
As is often the case with productions of Much Ado, Beatrice and Benedick’s one-step-forward-two-steps-back courtship so dominates proceedings that the more conventional romance between Ewan Somers’s Claudio and Marli Sui’s Hero is left in the shade. Still, Macdougall doesn’t shy away from the queasier elements of the story, notably the scene in which Claudio unjustly jilts Hero at the altar, with Billy Mack coming into his own with a howl of rage and despair as Hero’s humiliated father, Leonato. The shift of scene from outdoor summer idyll to shadowy chapel is achieved with a sudden, startling switch of lighting.
Just as Shakespeare delays the meting out of punishment and recriminations, so Macdougall maintains an emphasis in her production on the festive and comedic, including a very funny subplot involving the linguistically challenged constable, Dogberry (Antony Strachan). In the end, the warm, bright colours and sparkling back and forth between Winter and Jack stay with us like protective clothing as we brace ourselves for the dreich night outside.
Box office: 01382 223530, to June 25. Dundeerep.co.uk