“Much Ado About Nothing” at the Globe Theatre

Neil Dowden on the South Bank
8 May 2024

The outdoor season at Shakespeare’s Globe has got off to a fine start with Sean Holmes’s radiant revival of Much Ado About Nothing. Unlike recent stagings of the play at the National Theatre and the Globe (both set in the aftermath of the Second World War) this version takes place as Shakespeare wrote it in Renaissance Italy, complete with delightful period costumes. Indeed, the show runs counter to many productions at the Globe in the last few years (including by Holmes himself) in its more traditional approach (no dramaturg!), with a full-blown romantic comedy that engages the audience in a warm embrace.


The ensemble.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.


The tone is set with Grace Smart’s colourful, Mediterranean-style design of lush orange trees plus wooden crates and baskets bulging with the fruit which cast members sometimes pick up, while blue iron staircases lead to circular platforms around the central columns which are used to good effect in the eavesdropping scenes. Smart’s multi-coloured costumes have glamorous appeal, with the sword-bearing soldiers returning from war clad in armour before they change into more relaxed civilian clothing, especially in the masked ball scene where the animal, insect, and bird outfits are visually alluring.

The joyous ambience is much enhanced by Grant Olding’s Sicilian folk-music-inspired score, performed by a five-strong band (featuring mandolin, woodwind, and accordion) who move between the gallery and the stage, sometimes interacting with the actors.

Holmes foregrounds the high-spirited comic vein of Much Ado – especially the battle of wits, or “merry war”, between reluctant lovers Beatrice and Benedick – with the comedy edging ahead of the romance (though there is emotion too), and the dark plotting of Don John not treated too seriously.

The latter’s devious machinations are always a bit tricky to accommodate in such a feelgood play as they come out of nowhere – like a menacing cloud from a clear blue sky – with even less apparent motive than Iago apart from innate villainy. Rather than try to create some plausible back story, Holmes has opted to openly present Don John as a pantomime villain, while Claudio, Don Pedro, and Leonato’s belief in Hero’s wedding-eve infidelity to Claudio – which could of course be shocking, particularly coming from her fiancé and father – is shown more as unfortunate credulity than genuine misogyny. And unlike Don Pedro and Claudio – who needs to show remorse when Hero is proved innocent then pay a penance – we always know that Hero has not died of heartbreak, so there isn’t the same tragic feeling there is when Hermione is wrongly reported dead in The Winter’s Tale.


Lydia Fleming and Adam Wadsworth.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

The bland love between Claudio and Hero, though nominally the main story, of course makes nothing like as much impact as the sexual attraction between Beatrice and Benedick disguised as biting banter. They need some encouragement from their friends who – in this case a benevolent plot – trick them into acknowledging their own hearts and then falteringly declaring their mutual love face to face. Here, the play-acting is winningly done – with both enlisting the help of, respectively, sisterhood and brotherhood among the groundlings in a pledge of singledom, which they have to blushingly undo after confessing their love. Their new emotional maturity is solidified by the way Benedick comforts Beatrice after her cousin Hero’s cruel jilting – though her command to him as proof of his love to “Kill Claudio” elicits more laughter than shock from the audience in this light-hearted show.

The scenes featuring the local watch headed by constable Dogberry, like the ineptitudes of the mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, can become rather tiresome if done heavy-handedly, but here – aided by some judicious cuts – they don’t drag and prove mildly amusing.

Crucially, there is real chemistry in the leading roles between Amalia Vitale’s Beatrice and Ekow Quartey’s Benedick. Vitale gives Beatrice an almost Chaplinesque gait as she stomps or clowns around the stage, while she impales an orange with a knife just like her sardonic remarks pierce Benedick. It’s a thoroughly entertaining if slightly overdone performance that gets big laughs from the audience whom she strongly connects with. Quartey likewise has great audience rapport, in a likeably bombastic portrayal of a man more sensitive than he pretends, provoking much laughter when he clumsily tries to conceal himself and uses orange peel as earplugs to blot out a love song. And when the pair finally come together it feels natural.

Adam Wadsworth makes Claudio an amusingly none-too-bright manboy (whose sulky petulance when mistakenly thinking Don Pedro is wooing Hero is a precursor of his more serious jealous fit later on), while Lydia Fleming is charming as the underwritten Hero who doesn’t even speak for an extended period. John Lightbody makes more than usual out of the role of the host Leonato, hilariously milking the applause after singing, and later determined to teach his guests a lesson after dishonouring his daughter. Ryan Donaldson is a well-intentioned but meddling Don Pedro, with his bad brother Don John camped up deliciously by Robert Mountford. And Jonnie Broadbent does well as the earnest, incompetent Dogberry who mangles words as well as procedures as he helps to bring about a happy ending in spite of his best efforts.