Review: Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare’s Globe ★★★★☆

It seems apt to open the Globe’s first full summer season since 2019 with a comedy – after a challenging two years the theatre’s ‘Wooden O’ is again packed with groundlings ready to shake off recent trials and tribulations and laugh along to Much Ado About Nothing.

The play is the theatrical version of comfort food, following a template that has been stolen and reused over and over again in the centuries that have followed. We have two couples; one to whom love comes easily but a rocky patch is on the horizon and the other who hate each other but are destined to fall in love against all odds. With Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare essentially created the framework that sustained Matthew McConaughey’s career for a decade or more.

Lucy Bailey returns to the outdoor venue for the first time since her hit production of Titus Andronicus played at the theatre for a second time in 2014, directing the Globe Ensemble. She moves the action to 1945 in Northern Italy, with the country in the last throes of war. The Globe’s stage has been extended into the audience and looks every inch its Italian setting in Joanna Parker’s design.

Lucy Phelps as Beatrice and Ralph Davis as Benedick. Photo: Manuel Harlan

A returning soldier brings news that the Prince, Don Pedro (Ferdy Roberts), will soon be arriving from battle to the home of Leonata (Katy Stephens). “How many gentlemen have you lost in this action?” asks Leonata as a plane roars overhead. It is a commercial flight from London City Airport, but in the moment it could be the RAF, the Luftwaffe, or the Regia Aeronautica Italiana.

Among the Prince’s returning company is Claudio (Patrick Osborne) and Benedick (Ralph Davis). Claudio’s feelings for Leonata’s daughter Hero (Nadi Kemp-Sayfi) re-emerge and Benedick resumes a ‘merry war’ with her niece Beatrice (Lucy Phelps).
The Prince promises to help Claudio woo Hero and plots with Claudio and Leonata to turn the warring Beatrice and Benedick’s hate to love. Meanwhile, the Prince’s illegitimate brother Don John, played in mafioso style by Oliver Huband, sets out to ruin the Prince’s plans. The majority of the play’s drama comes from the dynamics of Beatrice and Benedick’s relationship and, to a lesser degree, whether Don John’s meddling will force Claudio and Hero apart.
The cast of Much Ado About Nothing. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Neither ever really feels in doubt, though the former definitely has more tension than the latter, particularly in the capable hands of Phelps and Davis, with Phelps perfectly capturing the 40’s styles and mannerisms with shades of Vivian Leigh and Grace Kelly. But, when it comes to comfort food, that is perhaps the point – there is enough tension to keep it interesting but not so much that we are distracted from the comedy of the piece, which is well played throughout.

What is interesting here, outside of the love story plots, is the gender dynamics created through Bailey’s gender-swapping of roles. Leonato and Antonio are now Leonata and Antonia (Joanne Howarth), Beatrice’s mother; the father and uncle have become the mother and aunt. It creates a household of women who, through Don John’s meddling, essentially end up at war with the arriving men. But the gender politics of the piece are only touched on lightly.

The arrival of Dogberry in the second half, played by recent Globe Hamlet George Fouracres, threatens to steal the show. Fouracres’s Dogberry is a gin-soaked blend of Blackadder’s General Melchett and Baldrick and is worth the admission alone with his comical malapropisms and general nonsense.

George Fouracres as Dogberry (centre) with Patrick Osborne and Ralph Davis. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Also impressive is Howarth as Antonia with her dry wit and reckless use of garden shears as she potters around doing her gardening, deliberating clipping near Benedick’s feet as he attempts to conceal himself in her vines and later threatening to fight the Prince and Claudio with them, while an honourable mention must also go to Philip Cumbus who, due to a broken ankle sustained by Ciarán O’Brien, plays the role of Boracio with script-in-hand. ‘I’ll just get my script out,’ he says, producing it from his inside breast pocket following an energetic chase across the stage, to laughs, cheers and applause.

There is good use of the audience, with lots of interaction with the cast – a sign of how far we have come since the last full summer season here – the actors driving, cycling and running through the crowd, swapping hats and coats with audience members to fool pursuing characters on stage, and it’s great fun. Bailey’s joyous production is a welcome return to normality – if Much Ado About Nothing be the comfort food of theatre, play on!

Much Ado About Nothing is at Shakespeare’s Globe until 23 October