As the house lights go down in the edgily UV-lit Michael Pilch Studio, Europe’s The Final Countdown heralds the start of Poltergeist Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. A small, nostalgic box television on a mound of snow begins to display the final scene of Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film adaptation.
“Which is Beatrice?” asks Branagh as Benedick, searching the crowd for the woman he is to marry. While the film plays, our own Beatrice (Alice Moore) watches loftily onstage, then sighs in contempt and switches the TV off. It is only at the end of the play that this move achieves proper pay-off, when Beatrice turns the tables and asks, “Which is Benedick?”. This rejection of previous renditions of the play — and, especially, of Emma Thompson’s Beatrice — encapsulates what I most enjoyed about this production: its refreshing originality.
Director Jack Bradfield has not only updated the setting to take place on a New Year’s Eve in the ‘90s, but also streamlined the text to provide (unusual in student Shakespeare productions) a fast-paced and engaging show. The party atmosphere captivated the audience from the very beginning, and set the mood for the entire play. By way of an innovative gender-swap between Hero and Claudio, Bradfield allowed the production to make an enquiry into the performative nature of gender. There was a far greater than usual dose of sympathy for the typically odious Claudio, as well as an exploration of issues surrounding lad culture and slut-shaming, with the (now male) Hero falsely accused of adultery, and the (now female) Claudio reacting with violence against her betrothed.
The strength of this production lay primarily in solid performances across the cast. Alice Moore and Adam Goodbody (Beatrice and Benedick) played the central couple effectively, with an unspoken tenderness rarely seen in those characters. And they also shone in ensemble moments: the scenes in which they overhear the discussions of their respective love interests provided some of funniest in the play.
Lillian Bornstein was another surprising choice for the traditionally male Don Pedro, but quickly claimed a place in the audience’s hearts with her warmth. She proved herself able to turn on a dime, to become heartbroken and melancholy. But the standout performance was given by Georgia Figgis as Claudio. Perhaps the emotional heart of the play, Figgis was by turns giddily impish with Benedick (in a relationship completely redefined by the gender switch to one of touching affection rather than laddish banter), sweet and coy with Hero, and gut-wrenching in her moments of tragedy.
This production is a very good remedy to that 7th week feeling when all you want is for term to end: at its heart, it is a play abounding in fun and sheer joy. And for a fully immersive treat, sit in the front row or wear something interesting — you might just get called upon to enter the convivial world of Much Ado About Nothing and that, I can assure you, is no bad thing.