★★★★½ QTC celebrates Shakespeare’s 400-year legacy by reimagining his classic comedy.

Playhouse Theatre, QPAC, Brisbane
April 28, 2016

Queensland Theatre Company celebrates the 400-year legacy of William Shakespeare with a delightful, contemporary performance of his classic comedy Much Ado About Nothing. Their first preview show, on April 23, marked the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death.
Much Ado About Nothing is often touted as the “world’s first romantic comedy”. This amusing battle of the sexes is, at its core, a study of what some people will do for love, and what others will do to avoid it. The plot focuses mainly on two very different sets of sweethearts – starry-eyed young lovers Hero and Claudio, and the bantering, bickering friends Beatrice and Benedick, both sworn off the frivolities of love and marriage until their friends help them to see their relationship in a different light. Despite the physical comedy and hilarious banter, the play also explores darker elements of spurned affections, family loyalty, and betrayal.

Director Jason Klarwein spoke at the play briefing about how the company had gone about contemporising the play, which also marks his mainstage directorial debut. “By its nature it is contemporary, because it is happening now,” he said. “It is set in modern dress and modern times. Think a tropical island out on the Great Barrier Reef somewhere, think a resort, think a man with a huge estate and a prince that probably owns the whole island.” In a play that usually requires over 20 actors, Queensland Theatre Company used 11. “There has been some abridging, and some conflating of characters, but you’ll see that in most Shakespeare nowadays,” Klarwein added. “It is a male-dominated play and we have cross-gendered some roles.”’

Perhaps the most notable modern element in the play was the music, composed by Gordon Hamilton. Known for his genre-defying compositions, Hamilton composed music to the Shakespearean songs within the play and delighted audiences with his reimagining of Outkast’s popular song Hey Ya, sung in harmonies and glittering with sequins by the multi-talented Liz Buchanan, Kathryn McIntyre and Megan Shorey.

The setting of a tropical resort was cleverly created by Richard Roberts with billowing white curtains, walls of white blinds, glass-top tables and soft white couches. You can almost feel the sand between your toes as the actors step in and out, sipping cocktails and indulging in witty banter. The revolving set presented the inside of a tropical villa, but was frequently spun around to create an outdoor beach setting. This malleable space was put to good use, especially as the group of friends observe one another unknowingly. Huge screens along the walls showed bright blue waves and bright blue skies, as well as incredible sunsets and a huge tropical moon. Lighting designer Ben Hughes created the enchanting effect of fireworks in conjunction with sound designer Justin Harrison.

Christen O’Leary was dynamite in the role of Beatrice, embodying the quick-witted character with sharp movements and emphatic gestures. Speaking about her character, O’Leary mused on why Beatrice has chosen to be so determinedly alone. “There has to be something that sets someone alone, other than selfishness,” she said. “I think she’s got blood on the path behind her. Where are her parents? Her siblings? What are her hurts? We can’t know. It’s never talked about.” O’Leary gave a passionate performance, and surprised and amazed the audience with her excellent singing. 

Benedick was played emotively by Hugh Parker, and his onstage chemistry with O’Leary was electrifying. Their comedic timing and dramatic pauses were excellent, and the use of space illustrated the evolution of their relationship. Hero and Claudio, played by Ellen Bailey and Patrick Dwyer respectively, also gave impressive performances. Bailey’s character has, perhaps, more room to demonstrate emotional range, and she certainly rose to the occasion.

Bryan Roberts cut an authoritative figure as Leonato, especially in contrast to the self-important and hilarious duo of Dogberry (Liz Buchanan) and Verges (Megan Shorey). Their capture and ‘interrogation’ of Borachio in particular had the audience laughing out loud. The role of Margaret was played by Kathryn McIntyre and Tama Matheson was suitably confident as Don Pedro. Both these roles act as catalysts to the central action more than anything else, but were portrayed with admirable depth of character.

Hayden Jones played the part of Don John, the Prince’s villainous brother, and referred to his character as a “deceptively difficult role” and “a complex and comedic villain”. “He’s basically a plot device,” Jones said. “Most of his dialogue is information and scheming.” The other half of the comedic villain duo, Borachio, was played energetically by Mark Conaghan. This pair, in particular, employed a lot of physical comedy that offset their malicious intentions.

Queensland Theatre has brought a fresh flavour to Shakespeare’s classic comedy, while still retaining all of the essential elements. You don’t have to be an avid Shakespeare fan to enjoy this charming, laugh-out-loud rendition of Much Ado About Nothing.

 Queensland Theatre Company performs Much Ado About Nothing at QPAC, Brisbane until May 15