#MadeInReading is an epithet to be proud of and the Reading Between the Lines theatre company impress us once again with its outstanding interpretation of Much Ado About Nothing, bringing West End calibre acting to Reading.
The stage is St James’ Catholic Church in Reading’s historic Abbey Quarter; a stunning location for this production. As the audience takes its seats a fog descends and we discover we are in the midst of the smoke of an Afghanistan battlefield. Spotlights and army camouflage set the scene. Far away, the sounds of battle and helicopters echo off the stone walls.
The stage is set out as a theatre in the round with a small raised platform in the centre of the nave. The sets are minimalist; a square stage, camp beds, black cubes. The actors walk around and through the audience and you are a spectator in the thick of the action.
The play starts with the din of battle and strobe lighting but we are quickly transported to the garrison town of Messina-Upon-Thames, Berkshire in the present day.
This interpretation of Much Ado takes us back to our basic emotions. The minimalist stage and modern setting strip away any barriers between the audience and the actors. By wearing camouflage and carrying rifles rather than velvet and swords the story is immediately accessible.
From the start we are reminded the characters are battle hardened and battle weary soldiers.
Much Ado About Nothing is a famous tale of hidden and mistaken identity.
Shakespeare’s language is full of wit and teasing but director Hal Chambers brings out the dark side of the story. There is much lying, cheating, hiding and pretending but all this dishonesty has a consequence and the innocent Hero (played by Lucy Grattan) pays the price.
Hero is one of the few characters not to wear some sort of uniform in the production and Grattan makes her feel very fragile in the toing and froing of the plot.
By contrast, Dani McCallum gives a modern feminist twist to Beatrice as a hard as nails, modern woman serving in the British army. From the soldier in uniform, holding her own among the men to the grieving friend McCallum gives us a female role worth shouting for. McCallum returns to Reading having recently worked with The Progress Theatre on its production of The Three Musketeers.
Oliver Dench skilfully plays an anguished Borachio. Regular theatregoers will recognise him from Reading Between The Lines’ production of Romeo and Juliet, and Reading Rep’s Christmas Carol.
Leonato, performed by Andrew MacBean is a ramrod straight patriarch, too ready to believe the worse of his daughter.
Marc Geoffrey (Don Pedro), Max Roll (Benedick), Mark Middleton (Don John and Friar Francis) and Phil Dunster (Claudio) are all convincing as soldiers and comrades.
This is a very testosterone laden, physical presentation with the actors crawling under camouflage nets or working out in the gym as the dialogue continues.
“Reimagining Much Ado About Nothing within the ranks of the British army only serves to lend power to the play’s already piercing banter, sexist sparring and status power struggles,” says director Hal.
There is a flawless dance score playing throughout, all original music written by composer and sound designer Benjamin Hudson. Hudson fuses Shakespeare’s words, the haunting elegance of 16th century melody and 21st century electronic music, a moment captured perfectly when three characters sing a haunting ac appella song at Hero’s funeral.
Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s comedies and the razor sharp dialogue is delivered with energy and dynamism from the cast. There are comedic moments such as the fancy dress party with characters dressed as superheroes and in animal onesies.
Overall though, this is a mature, hard hitting version of Much Ado About Nothing.
After the Reading performances, the Reading Between The Lines team will take the show to The Haymarket, Basingstoke (February 25-26) and then to the Greenwich Theatre from February 27-28.
Much Ado About Nothing written by William Shakespeare is performed at St James’ Catholic Church, Abbots Walk, Reading, RG1 3HW until Saturday, February 14. Tickets cost £20 and £16 and can be booked online.