Australian Shakespeare Company: Much Ado About Nothing (2024 Season) – Theatre Review

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Sit under the stars and join the Australian Shakespeare Company as they perform their return season of Much Ado About Nothing, the Bard’s enemies to lovers classic reimagined as a bright and wacky rock opera starring Hugh Sexton and Anna Burgess as Benedick and Beatrice, the lead singers of Messina’s most popular bands and the unwitting puppets in a love match game for the ages.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the play, Much Ado About Nothing follows two blooming love stories: the first between Claudio and Hero, and the second between Benedick and Beatrice. The play centres around “noting” (an old-fashioned word for rumour, gossip, or overhearing) and how it impacts the relationships within the story. For Beatrice and Benedick, the gossiping of their friends and family tricks them into realising their love for each other, while for Hero and Claudio the scheming of the play’s villain Don John almost tears them apart, proving that gossip is a very powerful thing.

Nestled in the Royal Botanic Garden’s Southern Cross Lawn, the compact stage for our Shakespeare players boasts bright neon shapes and sliding barn doors surrounded by stage equipment like mic stands, guitars and a keyboard, and the signature transport crates of roadies. The crowd was small but enthusiastic, ready to be entertained.

The few times that I’ve had the pleasure of watching the Australian Shakespeare Company perform, there’s one thing that has always stood out to me; their plays are immersive from beginning to end. Rather than allowing a pre-recorded voiceover to command the audience to leave their phones on silent and in their pockets, the Australian Shakespeare players say it personally and in character. Venturing down the runway with their rubbish pickers and in full glam rock roadie costuming (including the shaggy mullet wigs), are characters Dogberry (Madeleine Somers) and Verges (Tony Rive), night watchmen in the play’s original, engaging the attendees with a quick soundcheck and rundown of the rules for the evening.

Soon after the sun began to set, the stage was full, with the cast dressed in brightly coloured costuming that looked like something between high fashion pirates and Moulin Rouge dancers. Beatrice and The Babes of Disdain are introduced to the stage by Leonata (Natasha Herbert), Hero’s mother and the governess of Messina, to perform their hit song ‘Fair Eyes’ for the crowd but soon after, they’re upstaged by Benedick and The Love Gods, returning from a sell-out world tour.

The Babes of Disdain, made up of Beatrice (Anna Burgess), Hero (Larissa Teale), and Hero’s two handmaidens Ursula and Margaret, take the intrusion in stride, especially Hero who is immediately enamoured with Claudio (Alex Cooper), the youngest member of The Love Gods and a count in the service of Don Pedro (Johnny Light), the Prince of Aragon. As their performances come to an end, the night turns to a farce as Benedick and Beatrice tease and bicker with each other relentlessly. Claudio, bewitched by Hero’s beauty, conspires with Don Pedro to ask Leonata for her blessing to marry and Don John (Nicole Nabout), Don Pedro’s maligned brother, hatches a plan to ruin the impending nuptials and Hero’s reputation. What unfolds from here is a comedy that is boldly hilarious, brilliantly acted, and sprinkled with 90s rock nostalgia.

Directed by Glenn Elston, the Australian Shakespeare Company’s rendition of his beloved play is really something to witness. From the visuals to the stage use, to the props and the music, every aspect is so brilliantly considered and executed, and like many of their productions, the original dialogue is occasionally broken up with modern language and references to help add context to an otherwise dense script. Being that they were performing on an outdoor stage, the addition of trap doors to the stage and set gave the performance an added element of whimsy, as characters would occasionally surprise the audience by appearing inside set pieces followed by whispers of “How did they get there?” from the crowd.

Lead players Hugh Sexton and Anna Burgess were sublime, embodying their characters with such playfulness. Sexton especially threw himself into the more physical gags like “falling” off the stage onto a strategically hidden crash mat and engaging with a member of the front row to throw bread at the other actors mid-lines, while Burgess was really a master of the quiet aside, whispering ad-libs and the like that may have gone unnoticed if you weren’t watching carefully.

A special shout out also needs to go to Somers and Rive who very nearly stole the show with their flawless comedic execution. Whether they were front and centre or in the background of a scene, Dogberry and Verges were always doing something to make the audience laugh through sometimes subtle and sometimes overt physical comedy.

A show like this is not without its hiccups; the occasional sound issues meant that the cast had to really throw their voices, presumably not at issue for this particular performance given that the attendance numbers were smaller than usual, and there were a few moments throughout the night where some of the cast, notably Kevin Hopkins who played Antonio, stumbled over their lines but rarely to the point where the cadence and flow was broken, and each time the actors recovered well.

The Australian Shakespeare Company’s Much Ado About Nothing has a limited 3 week run until March 17 at the Royal Botanic Gardens, so secure your tickets while you can! This show is a riot from start to finish, and a fantastic way to spend the last of your summer evenings.

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Photography supplied.

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