With a tiled dance floor, festoons, crates and palettes strewn about and pillars wrapped with chains of leaves, Jean Chan’s design sets the scene for a celebration. Nic Farman’s lighting drenches the stage in a summer’s haze. The mood is sweet, pastoral. But outside the theatre it’s autumn, a chill is setting in, and Elizabeth Freestone’s production of Much Ado About Nothing is more bracingly troubling than its setting suggests.
Freestone handles the play’s tonal shifts deftly, equally comfortable in the comic antics of the eavesdropping scenes and the ugliness of the disastrous wedding scene. The plot to discredit Hero is this production’s main preoccupation, and Freestone highlights its prickliness and problematics (Leonato’s venomous and quickly forgotten rage makes for particularly queasy watching) without attempting to resolve them, knowing that none of Shakespeare’s comedies is quite straightforward.
There are great supporting performances from Imran Momen as a bashful, slightly gormless Claudio, and Georgia Frost as a melancholic, spiteful Don Jon, whose gender-swap feels like a potentially interesting reading, but one that warrants greater unpacking than it gets here.
But it’s Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s performance as Beatrice that really sticks. She’s sardonic, cutting and, despite her proudness, unreserved in her outward emotion – she’s distraught when dealing with the fallout of Hero’s shaming, and digests her friends’ overheard comments on her character in a confused, hungover haze.
She also delights in her own laughter, and approaches newfound love with more caution than Geoffrey Lumb’s sweetly overcome Benedick. It’s a complexly rendered, wholly charismatic performance.