Sport for Jove at the Norman Lindsay Gallery
I like to think of Much Ado About Nothing as the supreme artistic achievement in patriarchy subversion by stealth. Everybody is so busy enjoying the drama, romance and jokes that what the play communicates gets absorbed painlessly. All the social anxieties around the possibility of female infidelity are there – and they are shown to be unfounded, harmful, and a weakness ripe to be exploited by any villain with a grudge. It is a society segregated into groups of men and women, in which the family honour lies between a woman’s legs (where there is ‘no-thing’), and all men assume they are cuckolds, that allows these anxieties to take hold. Benedick can only become the hero when he aligns himself with the women, choosing to trust them over the appeal of further bonding with his male chums.
Australian productions of Shakespeare most often go with mixed/fantasy settings, rarely attempting to mimic a specific historic period (which is still common at the RSC, for instance). This has advantages if you want to keep Australian accents, as the audience doesn’t need to puzzle over what Australian visitors made it to medieval England or Renaissance Italy. A strong director keeping everyone on the same page, however, makes such concerns trivial. The ear attunes and forgets, disbelief is suspended. The Regency setting that this company chose here could easily have looked overly conventional, or even old-fashioned, in a theatre, but playing in the grounds of Norman Lindsay’s country house made sense of the choice. The location made the costuming whimsical and charming, and a specific period allowed the design to be cohesive, lending polish to the production as a whole.
There was a bonus for this choice of period in the casting of Claudio. The strong nose over the rosebud mouth and dimpled chin is so ubiquitous in Regency portraiture it becomes somewhat comical. Surely they can’t all really have looked like that? Observe:
Christopher Stalley boasts so precisely one of those faces it looks rather like a sophisticated sight gag to cast him as the idealistic young lover.
Honestly, how could you not put this face on top of a cravat? Of course I’m sure those responsible for the production had much less flippant motives, to do with themes of repression, tortuously contrived etiquette and a strictly ordered and competitive marriage market.
Good costumes are also one tool in helping actors as a group to remove themselves from who they are and live, together, in an imagined space. This is where a company’s professionalism is determined, and the firm hand of the director shows itself, in making sure that everyone on stage is in the same show. Sport for Jove has done a magnificent job in only a few short years of presenting as a fully professional theatre troupe, with a coherent artistic vision and a standard of presentation to match any of the longer-established, better funded Sydney companies. For this reason they are able to attract actors of a professional level not usually available to profit-share ventures, who participate because they want to do this kind of work. This then feeds back into their presentation standards. Experienced actors like Julian Garner, John Turnbull and Vanessa Downing have mature voices and plenty of depth in their range, which means that all is not resting on two or three people in the central roles. There is nothing to match a trained and practiced voice to lend conviction to a production, especially in an outdoor environment.
Everyone who appeared on stage added a piece to the whole. There was even a refreshingly audible Dogberry, who chose not to adopt the popular extremity of silly voices for this role, allowing us to hear that many of his lines are actually quite funny.
The young and pretty Beatrice of this production brought along no subtextual worries or sorrows, she was genuinely the merry soul that everybody believes her to be. The disgracing of her cousin came as a shock, the first disruption to a contented world, that then allows the next disruption in – admitting love. That scene between Beatrice and Benedick is quite simply the thing that people come to the theatre for.
A very effective adjustment to the original text was to combine the roles of Ursula and Antonio, and give the lines to Hero’s mother, Innogen. Innogen appears in the original text in one stage direction, has no lines, and is never mentioned again. Presumably Shakespeare included the character in an early draft, then ran short of actors or didn’t feel he needed her, or forgot what he had planned for her. These things happen all the time in getting a script into production. Declan Donnellan (for British company Cheek by Jowl) combined lines in the same way, but made the character Hero’s aunt (think the character played by Brian Blessed in the Branagh movie as a woman). In this case, giving Hero a mother added layers to the breaking of the wedding, as Leonato roars self-indulgently about how he wishes his daughter dead or never born than so disgraced, right in front of his wife. In both Donnellan’s version and here, the change is shown to be particularly powerful in the scene where Leonato confronts Claudio and the prince over his daughter’s death. Antonio’s lines describing Claudio and Don Pedro as ‘ ‘Boys, apes, braggarts, jacks, milksops’’ (V.1.98) and ‘ ‘Scambling, outfacing, fashion-monging boys, / That lie and cog and flout, deprave and slander’’ (V.1.102) carry tremendous additional weight coming from an older woman. Spoken by someone who has lived with Beatrice’s sense of restriction and impotence, but for much longer, the words are no longer mere taunts, but a fair grievance against an outrageous mismatch of power.
We get our happy ending in this play, and each production has to make a choice about how far to go in forgetting what Hero has just been put through. Truly, it would be hard to stay mad with anyone in this sunlight, under these trees, though Hero and Claudio did look a little more sober than formerly, as they reconciled. Man is a giddy thing, but this makes him capable of change. Without the need for any great effort in mining textual depths, the clarity, pace and exuberance of this production allowed the audience to travel alongside the developing relationships, and so to feel how they grew and solidified. “Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably” is a fine motto. Sound hearts live under prickly exteriors.