How do you resolve the misogyny in Much Ado About Nothing? On one hand, you have Beatrice, contemporary with her independent wit and contempt of courtship rituals; a strong, comic female character Shakespeare may have created given she has no analogue in the Bard’s sources for the play.
But then there is tragic Hero, whose marriage to Claudio is sabotaged by scheming men. She is attacked as a whore at the altar and deemed therefore unworthy of marriage. Thus, amid all the eavesdropping and masquing and comic deceit lies control of women’s bodies.
James Evans. Photo © Prudence Upton
As Bell Shakespeare takes the play to 27 venues across Australia, associate director James Evans has inverted the order of the material to critique it through a 21st-century lens. This new production plays with the gender dynamics, now opening with the dramatic wedding denouement, with critical tweaks inserted when the vows scene plays out again towards the end of the work.
“We’re messing with the ending a little bit,” Evans laughs. “I’ve slightly changed the structure because that final wedding scene is just so weird and bizarre, when Hero has to publicly vow her virginity in front of the whole crowd.”
The play is “high farce and ridiculous comedy one minute, and then it dives into tragedy”, says Evans. “I’m just not trying to smooth out those edges.” Rehearsing the comedy is particularly difficult, the director admits, “because it is so technical, and it’s just not funny until we get an audience in”.
Not all the 10 actors going into Much Ado have been convinced about the Bard’s intentions. Zindzi Okenyo says Beatrice, whom she portrays, is “incredibly contemporary” and an “amazing woman”, but the actor wonders whether some of Shakespeare’s characters’ views are a critique of society or a reflection of the writer.
Zindzi Okenyo. Photo © Pierre Toussaint
“I find Shakespeare pretty questionable,” says Okenyo. “There are some people who love him and think he’s a God and cannot do wrong and he’s the best writer. When they look at his work with a contemporary lens, they go, ‘Oh my gosh, he was so ahead of the time’. Much Ado – and this is the lens we’re going to have – is totally about toxic masculinity.
“But I’m really conflicted as to whether he was ahead of the times. He can be really racist and sexist and all of that stuff, really problematic. Yes, I think he was radical in that he was exploring a lot of ideas and is a beautiful writer, but … I’m very skeptical of Shakespeare.”
Does Evans agree Shakespeare is problematic in some ways? “Oh, absolutely. Look at Taming of the Shrew – I don’t even know how you start to approach that play. But with Much Ado, we’ve been finding that he wrote an extraordinary woman [Beatrice] almost outside the world of the play. It’s almost like her mind is too advanced or too broad for anything she finds in this world.”
Zindzi Okenyo and Vivienne Awosoga in rehearsal for Bell Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Photo © Prudence Upton
Playing in venues across the country, from Hobart to Cairns to Darwin to Albany, where stage sizes will vary from tiny to “absolute barns”, requires constant adjustment. “A couple of the venues we’re going to have to tweak our set and shove it this way and that to make sure it fits in. But for the most part, our designers are aware of that, so they build a set to accommodate all of those venues.”
Contemporary audiences meanwhile will mostly be unaware that “nothing” was slang for vagina in Shakespeare’s day – with the inference that to have a penis was something. The sexual innuendo was also a homophone: “The Elizabethan audience would have understood that kind of nod-nod, wink-wink title, and also apparently it was pronounced ‘noting’ at the time, and that was about overhearing people.”
Evans says the Bard is interested “partly” in what unites us as humans, “but also that when a society organises itself, it leaves people out. I think Shakespeare’s interested in the form of everything being wrapped up neatly, but he also constantly undermines that.
“That’s key to Shakespeare’s comedies: everything seems to be wrapped up in a neat little bow at the end, but there’s always people left out.”
Bell Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing tours nationally from July 12 to November 24