Directed by Stella Reid
When I heard that the 300 level students of Victoria University of Wellington were taking on the oft-performed Much Ado About Nothing, I admit I raised an eyebrow. It’s a daunting challenge, making this fan favourite seem fresh and worthwhile for their audience, most of whom have to brave harsh winds and rain to get to Studio 77 up in Kelburn. Thankfully, the bright-eyed and fresh faced company of THEA 302 mostly live up to that challenge.
I’ve always held the view that any successful production of this play hinges on the chemistry of their Beatrice and Benedick. And to this task, Ophelia Wass and Rory Hammond acquit themselves finely. Wass in particular is the star of the show, bringing the requisite witty irony to the role, but truly soars when she is called to deliver pathos and longing. In her hands, Beatrice’s seminal soliloquy - “What Fire in Mine Ears, Can this be True?”, where she finds out about Benedick’s true affections, is breathed to wondrous new life by Wass’ aching voice.
The other principal couple fare pretty well, too. Beales is luminous as Hero, injecting her with a wide-eyed innocence that never reads as naïve but more as charm and good nature. She is well paired with Simon Davis’ soft-spoken Claudio. This version of the couple is probably my favourite of what I have seen so far because two of this production’s very best moments revolve around them. The ensemble often punctuates moments with their harmonious singing and Hero’s funeral is wonderfully scored with Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova’s modern classic “Falling Slowly”, which really enhances the wistful mourning that clouds over Messina. And in the show’s very best moment, never have I empathised with Claudio more than seeing his heartbreak at what he presumes is Hero laying with another man. This is coupled by a seriously tender moment between Borachia (Bernardine Gladding) and Margaret (Alex Merson), the accomplices to this crime as they dance to a heart-breaking rendition of the The Knife’s “Heartbeats”. I fear I may be venturing into spoiler territory here, but this moment of theatrical magic is too good not to note.
The rest of the cast are pretty game and relish in their respective roles. The standout being Kieran Morris’ dulcet-toned Don Pedro. His prince is suave, magnanimous and jovial, and Morris brings equal amounts of gravitas and fun to the role. He is one to watch out for.
Studio 77 is smartly used overall. Adam Hart, Darryl Ng and Talei Peckham’s deconstructed, Brechtian set is inspired and informs the deconstructed, meta-theatrical approach of this production. The staging of the play in traverse is curious. I’m not sure whether it allows for the best viewing experience but it certainly makes for a memorable one.
The show does leave a few more things to be desired. It takes its time to find its groove and the second half is bogged down by its heavy focus on an OTT Dogberry, but my biggest quibble is the ending. Presented with two options, the opening night’s audience clearly chose the more enticing “mystery” one. Consequently, the company presents us with a limp, random ending to an otherwise promising production. I kept thinking it was a red herring and that the real, festive ending I associate with most Shakespeares would manifest itself but alas, we were left in anti-climax. Perhaps next time, the theatre-makers should ensure that in devising multiple endings that the audience always gets the most fulfilling one.
That said, the ending alone does not ruin this very welcome take on the Shakespeare classic. The company, director Stella Reid and the rest of the team should be proud for injecting exciting new life to the romantic comedy. I congratulate them on their sold out season.