Much Ado About Nothing – Watermill – Review

Shakespeare’s supreme comedy is slapstick fun


Two actors playing Benedick and Beatrice wearing masked ball disguises in the Watermill production of Much Ado About Nothing
James Mack and Katherine Jack in Much Ado About Nothing. Photo: Pamela Raith

Much Ado About Nothing is my favourite Shakespeare comedy. I’ve seen many productions, so believe me when I say that, if you’re in the Newbury area, The Watermill’s new slapstick version is well worth your time.​

The play has two, maybe three plot strands. There is a comic romance between Benedick and Beatrice which is probably as perfect as any ever written. Parallel to that, there is a more ‘serious’ relationship between Benedick’s friend Claudio and Beatrice’s cousin Hero. There’s also a lot of funny business involving the Night Watch having knowledge of a crime but being so pompous and stupid as to not recognise the significance of the evidence they have.
The ‘Nothing’ in question is not simply as we understand the word today. In Shakepseare’s time the word noting sounded the same as nothing and related to observation. So the two romances hinge on hoaxes in which the lovers observe false reporting. In the comical thread, Benedick and Beatrice, who spend the early part of the play covering their feelings by insulting one another, are brought together; but there are terrible consequences when Claudio is led to believe Hero has been unfaithful.
The former is the highlight of the evening, with Benedick and Beatrice in turn hiding, while their friends pretend they don’t know they’re there. The adaptor Tom Wentworth and director Paul Hart have chosen to emphasise the comedy of this to the point of slapstick. This is overdone at times but mostly it makes for an amusing evening, especially since James Mack as Bendick is superb at physical comedy. He has a cheeky smile when he delivers his barbs against Beatrice, and he submits his body to numerous indignities, not least having his face daubed with blue paint.
We get a double dose of farce in this production, as there already much built-in silliness in the form of Dogberry, the man in charge of the Night Watch, whose self importance and misuse of language (‘O villain! thou wilt be condemned into everlasting redemption for this’) is always a joy. Hayden Wood uses his rubbery face and lanky stature to great comic effect.  He even includes a comedy routine for those who stay in the auditorium during the interval, followed by humorous interaction with members of the audience.
Something is lost in this concentration on farce. Augustina Seymour playing Don John, who conducts the plot against Hero, is given little opportunity to establish her malevolence, and we don’t gain enough insight into why Claudio, played by Fred Double,  goes from being head over heels in love with Hero (Thuliswa Magwaza) to turning against her so easily, when his love is tested.
His failure needs to be given proper weight, to make all the more moving Benedick’s reaction when his love for Beatrice is tested.

Beautiful speech and sublime singing

 Shakespeare takes great joy in Benedick and Beatrice’s language, both their witty insults and their heartfelt romance, and I was pleased to hear James Mack and Katherine Jack speaking the words beautifully.
Priscille Grace in Much Ado About Nothing. Photo: Pamela Raith

The production is set in 1940s Hollywood, which is a mixed blessing. Designer Ceci Calf does miracles in fitting onto The Watermill’s small stage so many props and flats to help the comedy and suggest film sets, but not enough is done to conjure up the glamour of the period. That’s left to the gorgeous costumes. More of a problem is the lack of clarity about exactly how what you might call the ‘real life’ scenes were supposed to integrate with scenes that were apparently being filmed for a movie. Dogs have had more coherent dinners.

Still, the setting was worth it, if only because if provided the opportunity to weave in some songs from the 40s like When I Fall In Love, It Had To Be You and I Can’t Give You Anything But Love. As is traditional in Watermill productions, the actors play instruments but, in this case, nearly all the singing is done by Priscille Grace. Her sublime phrasing and the range of her voice are so good that I felt a frisson of excitement every time she approached the microphone.
Even if this production doesn’t quite do justice to depth of Shakespeare’s play, it is an enjoyable evening’s entertainment. I thoroughly recommend Much Ado About Nothing at The Watermill.
Much Ado About Nothing can be seen at The Watermill until 18 May 2024
Paul was given a review ticket by the theatre.
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