Much Ado About Nothing, St Kieran’s College, Kilkenny: Shakespeare in the open is a breath of fresh air
Running until Saturday August 17
We don’t often get to see this particular Shakespeare play so it’s a pleasure to have it so well served in this boisterous and intelligent production by Rough Magic and the Kilkenny Arts Festival.
It is a comedy, though sometimes referred to as a problem comedy. The men return victorious from war. The first half is all romantic japes, flirtations and funny barbs about men, women and the slapstick of romance. Benedick (Peter Corboy) and Beatrice (Maeve Fitzgerald) immediately get stuck into a conflict of their own, a war of words, which hides their fancy for each other. Ardent Claudio (Shane O’Regan) falls in love with innocent Hero (Venetia Bowe). His boss Don Pedro (Conor O’Riordan) arranges the match by seeking the permission of her mother Leonata (Clare Barrett) — this role has been gender-switched and is usually her father. Hero is pledged to Claudio and a jolly wedding is set up.
Then, the play does a somersault and lurches in an altogether darker direction. The villain Don John (Jack Mullarkey) sets in motion a plan to cast suspicion on the virtue of the bride; most of the men get seduced by this sinister plot, and in a wave of patriarchal viciousness, they turn on the women and scorn young Hero on scant evidence. Claudio threatens Hero with a knife. In a moment, the upbeat energy turns sour. This tonal shift is astutely handled by director Ronan Phelan with a torch song from Barrett and an hilarious Garth Brooks number from O’Regan. The action gets pulled out of the fire and patted back into comedy shape.
Sabine Dargent’s clever design locates the story in a contemporary caravan park, complete with string lights, an artificial pond, and a barbecue. Catherine Fay’s costumes are full of wit and colour. The blue army camouflage uniforms, the women’s bright dresses, the sequinned men’s outfits for the masked ball, all add to the riotous sense of fun. Corboy and Fitzgerald do a terrific job as the fighting lovers, Benedick and Beatrice. They shine the brightest, though there is also much comedy wattage coming from Barrett.
Seeing Shakespeare outside, though the production has plenty of technical effects, is a reminder that we are being entertained by the same material as entertained an audience in 1600, something that is easier to forget in a cushioned theatre. The business of comedy romance hasn’t changed that much in four centuries, as we laugh at the same jokes and sit under the selfsame sky. A hugely enjoyable and timeless treat.