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February 14, 2005 | by  | in Music |
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Shakespeare….maaate!

Featuring Kiwi accents, Girl Guides and rugby, this year’s Summer Shakespeare follows in the tradition of taking the Bard by the balls and bowling with them. Eleanor Bishop talks to the directors of Much Ado About Nothing.

After the dreariness of past Summer Shakespeares, Much Ado About Nothing – small town fifties New Zealand-style – is welcome relief. Much Ado tells the story of Benedick and Beatrice. They hate each other and swear never to get married. However, after a trick is played on them to make them each think the other loves them, surprise surprise they fall in love, taming their wild hearts. Throw in the evil Don John trying to spoil the fun for the other lovers Hero and Claudio and a disastrously incompetent watch (Girl Guides in this case) trying to capture Don John and his team of baddies, and its fun times all around!

What’s the Ado?
I sat down with co-directors Rachel More and Jacqueline Coats to find out.

Why choose Much Ado about Nothing for this year’s Summer Shakespeare? First, the bulk of the characters are youthful; the directors wanted the actors to play their own ages, and the actors in this production are all young. Furthermore, Much Ado is a play with striking modern relevance. In the original setting, Beatrice is a woman who needs to keep her mouth shut and needs a good husband. These days, “there wasn’t a woman in the cast who didn’t relate to Beatrice” according to director Rachel More.

Having chosen the right play, it was next up to the directors to find the right cast. Here, they were spot on – the leads driving this production are truly brilliant. Beatrice (Amy Tarleton) captures that mix of feistiness and wit without straying into bitch territory. Benedick (Simon Vincent) turned my heart to a warm glow, delivering his bites of wit with a hearty kiwi twang.

Adapting to Kiwi-ana
Changing the setting and making it work is the mark of a good Summer Shakespeare, and transporting post-war Messina to small town New Zealand in the ‘50s works down to every last meticulous detail (including the authentic club rooms as the half time loos and “hey nonny nonny” as a fifties slow dance). The ‘50s were a fun, light time, which goes hand in hand with the spirit of the play. An even more perfect fit is the similarity of attitudes to women between the two times. In the post-war ’50s, for a woman to go to the alter a virgin was of upmost importance, as was her duty to get married in the first place and to produce children. This fits in perfectly with one of the central themes of the play – cuckoldry. The transition makes Beatrice’s “Oh that I were a man” speech seem perfectly applicable to the time period.

One of my favourite innovations (and here I am in agreement with Rachel More) was the Girl Guides as the watch. More: “ Now I look back and Shakespeare just didn’t know that he was writing Girl Guides”. Rachel Groot is fabulous as Mrs. Dogberry, perfecting that Jane Austen aunt-esque air of interference and ignorance, while at the same time tying up bad guys with string.
The New Zealand version of soldiers coming home from war becomes the rugby team. After all any team – soldiers or rugby players – is about boys being together and being mates. Doing battle on the field. Yeah mate.

And there weren’t too many problems changing things. According to Coats – “It’s a sign of a good concept if it actually just fits. When you’re rehearsing and you’re going ‘this just works’”. Aside from a few words here and there (one must stay true to the Bard’s meaning), the watch is changed to a group of women, Bathasar becomes Bella and Antonio becomes Antonia. Maybe Shakespeare wasn’t sexist after all, if he makes it so easy to cross-genderise his parts?

One of the best scenes in this production is the slapstick-filled scene where Benedick and Beatrice are in turn tricked into falling in love with each other. Some brilliant physical comedy sees Benedick hiding behind poles, climbing poles and scrambling amongst the audience. Benedick’s conviction after the trick is played absolutely brought the opening night house down: “Against my will I am sent to bid you come into dinner….there’s a double meaning in that!”

Making it Your Own
So how do you go about making such a classic play your own? The idea just came upon both directors one evening. Little touches here and there evolved from rehearsals. Despite looking at other versions (the mention of the BBC elicits yawns from both), both directors felt that come some point, you don’t want to think about other versions, because you’re really set on your own. You want to make yours unique. And steer away from Brannagh (despite his brilliance).

Shakespeare darling…in a field.
Sick of being plagued by Wellington’s terrible summer weather, this year’s directors opted for the safety of a marquee (the Grounds of the Messina Football Association) in the Boyd Wilson Field, a location which holds special memories for Jacqui as she used to tramp across it every day walking up to Victoria while she was studying for her BA.

A marquee does pose a few problems. Performing outside means the energy of the actors must be double to fill the big space, especially for Beatrice and Benedick as they are driving the play. Nonetheless, Rachel More’s vision for the future of Wellington theatre doesn’t lie in building more theatres, but in performing more plays in tents.

Working together isn’t Much of a Do.
Because they are good friends, Coats and More say that working together is like working with family. They met in 2001 while doing their Masters in Theatre Arts in Directing here in Wellington. They clicked straight away when Morel mentioned one of her favourite plays she’d seen in Wellington was Bent, which she then discovered Coats had directed.

The perks of having two directors means there’s no need to be polite: “You have to convince each other of your ideas… which makes the ideas stronger”. They had the same concept right from the start (as they came up with the idea together), so differences of opinion have been small: “Co-directing takes ego out of the mix…you’ve always got someone questioning you.” In fact both directors can’t imagine how one director alone could do a Summer Shakespeare and both agree they wouldn’t like to try it on their own.

To see or not to see?
Boisterous dancing, upbeat music (from The Lamingtones) and lively “skirmishes of wit” means Much Ado about Nothing is worth the money for a good summer night out. You know its good when Beatrice asks “Do you love me?” and Benedick replies “Troth no” with such a strong Kiwi accent that you almost expect to hear a ‘mate’ at the end.

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare
Directed by Jacqueline Coats and Rachel More
Boyd Wilson Field till February 19.

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About the Author ()

Well hello there. Eleanor was the Theatre Editor in 2007, now she writes the Women's Column and just generally minces about the Salient office. Eleanor is currently an Honours student in Theatre (with a touch of gender). She also has a BCA in Marketing but she tries to keep that on the d-low (embarrassing, because she loves academic integrity and also perpetuating the myth that she's a tad bohemian). If you've got a gender agenda, woo her by taking her a BYO Malaysian. She lies, if you show any interest at all she'll probably tackle you in the street and force you to write a column.

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