Much Ado About Nothing is such a summer favourite and so frequently performed that you might feel you’ve seen it all too many times before. You know the plot so well that you anticipate every twist and turn before they happen, look out for the milestone moments and find yourself zoning out during the no longer quite so hilarious distractions and diversions of the Watch which just prolongs the resolution of the central love stories and evil machinations of Don John. Like A Midsummer Night’s Dream it’s too frequent repetition by multiple companies in mainstream theatre and the fringe has become a burden, dulling the edges of one of Shakespeare’s finest comedies.
Yet the announcement that innovative theatre company The Faction was about to put on a slick 90 minute performance in a pop-up theatre in Selfridges had me instantly looking for tickets. This youthful troupe has quite an impressive reputation and I’ve professionally reviewed their work at the New Diorama several times, enjoying their novel approach and application of wide-ranging technique to add insight to established classics. At the start of this year their Richard III was so impressive it was clear they were had solidified their place as the best performers of Shakespeare on the fringe, with a show that allowed its leading character to only show his physical deformity when his self-belief was challenged and at all other times the audience saw Richard as he saw himself – a super-human. It showed an understanding of the text and its central character that was both inventive and yet perfectly in tune with the tone of the original work, and it meant that any production by The Faction is well worth a look.
On Selfridges Lower Ground Floor is the reFASHIONed theatre, which uses a catwalk-style traverse stage through the centre of the small room with the audience facing each other, as the actors appear from around the auditorium. As with most Faction productions, this version of Much Ado is simply staged with minimal set and props but a touch of modern glamour is added with coloured light panels along the stage and its pillars, as well as the integration of video screens that give this fresh adaptation a claustrophobic feel that emphasises the several instance of spying and deception in the text.
Typically for this company, the interpretation has a very young and vibrant feel to it, not just in the drastically reduced run time but also in the very nice staging of the early masked ball, which here becomes a frenzy of lights and bodies to a thumping sound track. With many of the older characters hoofed-out of this production or reduced to sparse video messages, we’re left largely with a group of youngsters desperate to party – the men because they’ve returned from war craving female company and escape; the women because they’ve been trapped in the villa for months without any potential husbands to flirt with. Much hilarity is drawn from the vibrant drunken revelry that ensues as romantic marriage deals are secured as easily as seedy bunk-ups.
And this slick enthusiasm is a constant feature of the show which keeps the action moving at an impressive pace without the distraction of the subplots and characters. But, having seen several Faction productions there was an edge missing from this one. One of the features of this company is their inventive application of physical theatre to reinforce a fresh interpretation of classic texts, which works to such impressive effect in the bare black box of the New Diorama. In their Richard III earlier this year, they created two thrones from the bodies of eight cast members, or in their Joan-of Arc last year choreographed some brutal fight scenes in slow motion that added considerably to the drama. Here in what seems a bigger budget approach to Much Ado, it has lost some of that Faction physical flair which if you’ve never seen them before you won’t notice but for regulars is a sadly absent hallmarks.
The performances are impressive and convincing, though, and the success of any version of this play hinges on the central pairing of Beatrice and Benedick, here played with verve by Alison O’Donnell and Daniel Boyd. Benedick in particular is too often portrayed as a swaggering hero, but Boyd nicely subverts our expectation by making him a slightly unsure of himself hipster in a patterned shirt and too short trousers. Boyd’s funniest moments reveal his dithering heart, implying his failure to pursue Beatrice has more to do with his lack of self-confidence and fear than lack of interest in her.
Brimming with self-confidence is O’Donnell’s contrasting Beatrice, constantly bursting with witty put-downs and slights against her sparring partner. She’s full of energy and certainty, that occasionally borders on fishwifey, but there’s a nice brittleness to her that melds well with Boyd’s quieter Benedick, and gives the pairing fresh appeal. The comparative lovers Hero and Claudio are somewhat thankless parts, they provide the backbone of the story but both are rather insipid which makes it difficult for the actors to inject much animation into that relationship. While they may command less attention than the leads, you don’t hate them for their blandness and Lowri Izzard and Harry Lister Smith make a sweet pairing.
In an interesting take the role of Leonato is perfectly transposed into Leonata and played brilliantly by Caroline Langrishe, which adds a second gender dimension to the play, as a house entirely composed of women is ‘invaded’ by an army of men. Langrishe absolutely anchors the production as the dignified host, adding considerable gravitas to the otherwise fledgling cast. Equally interesting is Faction veteran Christopher Hughes as Don John a nicely malevolent presence casting a shadow over the otherwise sunny proceedings, but adding greater depth to this role of jealous brother than often seen, and with Jude Owusu’s engaging Don Pedro, you want these fractious siblings to be given more stage time.
There’s much to admire in this pared-down version of Much Ado About Nothing and its modern twist combined with an unusual setting should certainly attract new audiences in this Shakespeare anniversary year. The Faction has taken a fresh approach to a much worn classic and while many critics were unimpressed with some of the innovations on offer, this company’s lateral-thinking approach always makes their work an interesting experience. The use of video isn’t to all tastes and it may not work well but I can see why they chose it – it obviates the need for Simon Callow et al to turn up every night, slims down the subplots and implies a wider comment on the surveillance element of the plot.
Shakespeare in a shop is quite a strange idea, and while the avowed purpose of this short season is to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death with a number of events and displays across the department store, including quotes and merchandise in the famous windows, at heart of course, this is a cunning way to sell things and Selfridges has a themed clothing line as well as copious amounts of accessories, books and general gifts which it hopes to flog to you, while showcasing its stylish fashion credentials with the cast costumes. Yet in return, with several empty seats, the theatre could do more to drum up on-the-spot business from people browsing the cook-wear, because despite its all too frequent summer airing, The Faction is one of London’s leading young companies and their take on Much Ado About Nothing is fresh and fun.
Shakespeare reFASHIONEDed: Much Ado About Nothing is at Selfridges until 24 September, with performances running Tuesday-Saturday. Tickets cost £20