It is typical for modern productions of Shakespeare to transport his plays from their original geographical and temporal contexts into a new place and time. Edinburgh University Shakespeare Company’s (EUSC) production of Much Ado About Nothing – the company’s first show at the Fringe in its ten-year history – keeps the original Sicilian setting of Shakespeare’s comedy, but updates it to the 1980s. In contrast to some of EUSC’s recent productions – 2018’s Romeo and Juliet, for instance, and 2016’s King Lear – this is a bright, colourful play. It is performed with vigour by all of the actors, who are evidently enjoying themselves. EUSC succeed, as ever, in making Shakespeare accessible and fun, without dumbing down the language.
It is a shame that it all has to take place in the darkness of theSpace on Niddry Street, as this is a production that cries out to be performed on Portobello Beach or in the Meadows – although it is understandable, given the Scottish weather, why this would not be feasible. EUSC do their best to transform the small theatre space into bright, warm Sicily, with colourful clothing hung on a washing line across the stage. Most of the characters, too, are dressed brightly, especially Beatrice (played by Rosie Hart) in her wonderfully yellow dress. Still, the oppressively black stage curtain and carpet of the venue mean that the dramatic setting is never quite convincing.
The frequent use of 80s music, meanwhile, whilst fun and evocative, is often too loud, making it at times hard to hear – let alone understand – what the actors are saying. Much Ado About Nothing is rife with cutting one-liners that have still not lost their comedic edge, and it is a pity that some of them end up being lost under the music.
That being said, most of the comedy is indeed effective, especially the love-hate relationship between Beatrice and Benedick (Jacob Baird), who are tricked by their friends into believing that they both secretly adore one another. There is good use of slapstick without it becoming excessive, and the actors are able to trigger laughter from the audience through just tone of voice or a particular facial expression.
Unfortunately, the darker elements of the play are less effective. This is, in part, the fault of the play itself rather than this particular production, as the sudden shift in atmosphere from comedy to tragedy in Act Four is a struggle for any rendition of Much Ado to pull off. Shakespeare provides comic relief from the more tragic elements of the play through the addition of the farcical Dogberry, but Dogberry and his motley crew of police watchmen do not make an appearance in this production. It is, of course, inevitable that material will have to be cut to fit an entire Shakespeare play into a one-hour Fringe show, but the result of taking out this element of the play is that the public shaming of Hero (Holly Marsden) by her fiancé Claudio (Douglas Clark) spoils the frivolity of the rest of the play, and a nasty taste remains in your mouth even after things are patched up in a typically Shakespearean comedic ending.
Still, that should not stop you from seeing EUSC’s Much Ado this Fringe: the actors are great, the set design is charming, and all myths about Shakespeare no longer being funny are proven wrong.
Much Ado About Nothing
theSpace @ Niddry Street – Lower Theatre (Venue 9)
Until 25 August
Image: Andrew Perry