Review: Much Ado About Nothing (Bard in the Botanics)
Updated: Jul 29
Bard in the Botanics Bring out this Play’s Strengths, but Cannot Overcome Its Weaknesses
Sometimes a subplot is more interesting and praised than the main plot, and there is no play for which this is more true than Much Ado About Nothing. When we think of this classic Shakespeare comedy, it is not the dramatic on-and-off marriage of Claudio and Hero that we think of, but the hilariously spiteful romance of Beatrice and Benedick. In this production, directed by Gorgon Barr, the two love stories are set against the backdrop of a glitzy but slightly tacky hotel (think diamante cushions and packets of scampi fries behind the bar). It is the perfect setting for a story with a little too much drama for its own good.
Photo Credit: Tom Duncan
Robert Elkin revives his role as Bertram; a gender-swapped Beatrice that he performed in Bard in the Botanics’ 2013 version of the play. Elkin strikes just the right balance between being prideful but also vulnerable. He has some tremendous comedic moments, but it is a credit to him and Barr that they create a character that is both camp and dignified. It is refreshing to see a production where a male character can be dressed in sparkly hen-do gear in one scene, but still display depth and vulnerability in another.
Performing opposite Elkin is James Boal as Benedick, who fully embraces the character of an arrogant confirmed bachelor. He is easily worked up, a touch intimidating, and rather clumsy. Easily the best scene of the night is when he eavesdrops on his peers with all the grace of a bull in a china shop. The gender swap isn’t seamless; there are lines that don’t line up, and in some ways it is a shame that the gender politics of Beatrice and Benedick are lost in this rendition. But all that is made up for by the couple’s chemistry, and by the virtues of seeing a gay romance, especially one in which they are tricked into falling in love by their friends and family, delivered so sincerely.
Photo Credit: Tom Duncan
Even though their narrative is (rightly) at the forefront, there are strong performances everywhere you look. Whenever Laura Lovemore has a moment to shine, either as Hero or as Frances Seacole, she doesn’t hold back, especially with her facial expressions. Zackary Moore plays a memorably wicked and slimy Borachio who stumbles drunkenly amongst the audiences and confesses his mischief. Sam Stopford is initially endearing as Claudio but becomes an increasingly unlikeable protagonist as the play continues. But, with a character as temperamental as Claudio, can anyone really blame him?
But beyond an unlikeable character, there is a fault with Much Ado About Nothing that splits the whole play in two; the shift in tone between the two acts. The first act sees the two couples light-heartedly falling in love, with some slight plotting in the background. In the second, the tone turns sour very quickly. It is hard to watch such melodramatic scenes unfold between characters you have come to enjoy, and it makes you wish you could return to the upbeat jollity of the first half. Of course, some of it comes down to direction, and how far they choose to lean into the harshness of the storytelling, but ultimately these are faults that are a fundamental part of the play. No amount of manipulation can make the treatment of Hero and her subsequent revenge any less mean-spirited. Given the challenges of the play, Barr handles the tonal shifts of the second half as well as anyone could hope for, and adds his own spin with the entertainingly incompetent Neighbourhood Watch.
The parts that make the play still entertaining today are given the spotlight they deserve. It plays just as well to newcomers as to audiences who are already familiar with the story, a hard balance to strike especially when being loyal to the text. Even though the journey from start to finish may not be consistent, Gordon Barr’s Much Ado About Nothing is a rewarding production and a good night out. Three stars.
Whispers from the Crowd: I really enjoyed it! The cast were amazing, I saw them in Midsummer. I have a soft spot for Margaret (Katie Barnett)"
Much Ado About Nothing Will Run at Glasgow Botanical Gardens until July 30th