In Much Ado About Nothing, Beatrice and Benedick are at “merry war”. Director Conrad Nelson takes the concept of wartime amusement and runs with it in this Northern Broadsides and New Vic Theatre co-production.
All aspects of the design and delivery are tailored to fit a vision of frivolity. Lis Evans’ set evokes a rural idyll – the battles of the Second World War were fought far beyond this horizon – and exquisite musical interludes by a multitalented cast add to the atmosphere of warm camaraderie.
Robin Simpson revels in the witty jocularity of Benedick’s lines and exploits the opportunities for physical comedy as he eavesdrops from on high. Isobel Middleton makes a marvellous Beatrice, contorting her facial features into the embodiment of disdain when first spotting Benedick. Later – when she proclaims, “I wish I were a man!” – Middleton fires out the words with a strength that cuts through the misogyny of the problematic Hero-Claudio subplot.
Transposing the action to the Second World War makes the play’s concerns with status and female reputation harder to fathom. Though RAF uniforms delineate the rank of the noble male characters, the Women’s Land Army uniform places Hero (Sarah Kameela Impey) and Beatrice on a more equal footing with other women. This lessens the impact of Hero’s fall from grace and creates difficulty when plot strands diverge.
It is a relief to return to the central couple. Despite the brilliant performances of the supporting cast, ultimately the delicious battle of wits between Beatrice and Benedick holds too much allure.