Written around 1599, midway through Shakespeare’s career, Much Ado About Nothing is generally thought of as one of his more radiantly feel-good comedies, with squabbling lovers-in-denial Beatrice and Benedick firing vitriolic barbs at each other before yielding to the inevitable. There’s also the gloriously silly Keystone Cops-style clowning from Dogberry (played in this production by Chip Chuipka) and his neighbourhood watch.
Yet, even if the sunny weather holds up — and Repercussion has a show-must-go-on policy except during Lear-like downpours — audiences won’t be able to help but notice storm clouds gathering over the flower-bedecked stage, as the romance between the play’s other couple, Hero and Claudio, is soured by scheming, accusations of infidelity and public shaming. Most shocking of all is the moment when Hero’s father, Leonato, goes into full honour-killing mode, swearing he’ll tear apart his daughter with his own hands.
Director and Repercussion boss Amanda Kellock tackles this unpleasant aspect of the play with an intriguing casting choice, perhaps with a nod to her all-female Julius Caesar last year: Leonato is now Leonata, as played by Susan Glover.
“A lot of the play is about gender norms and stereotypes and the restrictions that are put on us because of gender,” Kellock explained during a media call in Pierre Elliott Trudeau Park, just before the dress rehearsal. “To me, these notions are as damaging to the men as they are to the women. Having Leonata be a matriarch was an interesting way to explore the way patriarchal notions can still be enacted by women. It has created a really interesting dynamic. Moments that are really despicable when it’s a father become more emotional, a little bit more heartbreaking, when it’s a woman.”
Also adding to the play’s occasional somber tone is one-man rain cloud Don John, a typically Jacobean malcontent who relishes his role as a “plain-dealing villain.” In yet another intriguing piece of casting, Kellock has handed the role to her own life partner, Dean Patrick Fleming, who is returning to acting after a decade as the artistic director of Geordie Productions (he’s also doubling as Dogberry’s amiable sidekick, Verges). Decked out in a silvery soldier’s uniform with a hint of aristocratic frock-coat (Sophie El-Assaad’s costumes and Sabrina Miller’s camouflage-clad set design evoke the immediate aftermath of World War Two), Fleming joined his wife to talk about Don John’s malevolence.
“For the first part of the process, I really tried to give reasons and find justifications for his actions,” Fleming said, “but at some point, you just have to realize there are some people who are deeply morose, who do evil things for the sake of it. I got to the point where I enjoyed it, embraced it. It’s a fun process. I never got the chance to play the bad guy much before.”
The main event of the play, of course, is not Don John versus the world, but rather the “merry war” between Benedick and Beatrice, played respectively by Black Theatre Workshop boss Quincy Armorer and some-time burlesque queen, Holly Gauthier-Frankel, performing in her second Shakespeare production, following her turn as Portia in last year’s open-air Julius Caesar.
“I always look at it as the characters’ version of flirting,” Armorer said of the pair’s squabbling. “They almost despise each other, but I feel that Benedick can’t wait to get back to her, to verbally spar with someone who matches him.”
For Gauthier-Frankel, Beatrice is proof that Shakespeare was, with this character at least, on the right side of history, however much the patriarchal plot grinds down the womenfolk. Beatrice is, she said, tied into “the women’s realm, the women who really established themselves during the war. So a lot of my fuel comes from warning Hero that yes, yes, love is all really lovely, but just watch yourself. Beatrice is tricky because she’s really resigned herself to go and be with the bachelors in heaven. She’s got that spinster schtick down pat. I think she takes a lot more convincing. I don’t feel she ever fully embraces her romance with Benedick.”
Benedick and Beatrice’s patter shuttles back and forth at great speed, and a lot of the 400-year-old wordplay can be quite bewildering for a modern-day audience (did you know, for instance, that the title itself is a dirty joke?). Armorer and Gauthier-Frankel are confident that the cast’s intensive work on the text will get the meaning across. But if you’re still apprehensive, this year, Repercussion is offering a couple of initiatives to deepen audience understanding. On Aug. 1, there’s an informative talk at the McGill campus site prior to that evening’s performance, and the company is also joining forces with Geordie Productions to offer several two-hour Introduction to Shakespeare workshops for young people.
There’s romance of an altogether more unsettling kind over at Théâtre du Nouveau Monde this week as the theatre plays host to Paris’s legendary Comédie-Française company and their production of Victor Hugo’s Lucrèce Borgia. Written in 1833, and in the company’s repertoire since 1914, it’s an unapologetically melodramatic take on the monstrous sister — and lover — of Cesare Borgia.
Hugo turns Renaissance Italy’s bloody history into a tragic love story between the exiled and ageing Lucrèce and a dashing young soldier, whose true identity you’ll probably guess within the first five minutes. That doesn’t stop it being good, gruesome fun, all spiced up with mass poisonings, morbid spectacles and grand, succulent speeches. It’s showing as on of the 11 plays that make up the Montreal 375 À nous la scène festival. Full details can be found at 375mtl.com/anouslascene.
AT A GLANCE:
Much Ado About Nothing plays at various outdoor locations in and around Montreal, until Aug. 15. All shows begin at 7 p.m. Admission is free, but donations are welcome. For more details, call 514-931-2644 or visit repercussiontheatre.com
Lucrèce Borgia plays at Théâtre du Nouveau Monde, 84 Ste-Catherine St. W, from July 25 to Aug. 4. Tickets are between $86 and $126. Call 514 866 8668 or visit tnm.qc.ca
Read the full article, posted by the Montreal Gazette by clicking here.