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Shakespeare gets demob happy

Paul Fisher looks at an attempt to make classical theatre relevant to a contemporary audience. MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, Bristol Old Vic

Curtain up at the Bristol Old Vic's Much Ado About Nothing will reveal a scene draped with laundry. Washing lines of frocks and blouses, knickers and bras and children's clothing signify a women's world and, later, give characters credible hiding places during the incredible eavesdropping that persuades Beatrice and Benedick into one another's arms. BOV's Twelfth Night, a couple of years back, used similarly weird sets with some success.

Action starts with soldiers returning to domesticity. Their machine guns and 20th century dress, plus Glenn Miller music and the skimpy programme notes will tell the audience it's Sicily in 1946. So what's wrong with a 17th century Sicily?

"We've got to get some fun out of it," explains designer Mick Bearwish, based on the premise that what a theatre company enjoys, an audience is likely to enjoy as well. He'll "throw up" if he sees another Elizabethan doublet and he's happier going for a laid back, sexy atmosphere with "lightweight dresses and lots of cleavage".

Director Andy Hay is aiming for relevance to a modern audience some of whom remember World War II demobilisation and will respond to a setting styled on films like The Godfather and Cinema Paradiso. This way, themes of family and community, respect and duty, revenge and self-deceit will seem more real: "Above all the play is about young characters in love. It recognises teenage feelings in ways they can understand."

The Bristol Old Vic Company is 50 this year, and it's 50 years since real demob fever. If numerology sells tickets, fine; particularly if BOV lives up to its slogan of "acting for every age". Hay isn't about to sit school parties in small groups or restrict their numbers. He blames the production if an audience gets restless, hence modern references and liberal cuts of inscrutable dialogue. "A two-and-a-half hour performance is plenty." he says "particularly for young people."

In contrast to Kenneth Branagh's sunny Tuscan pageant of a costume drama, Hay's version will be darker and emphasise the disruption behind the idyll: the Beatrice and Benedick bantering will play up their raw hostility and not simply go for laughs; the DogberryVerges star turn promises to be funnier and closer to the text. Instead of Ben Elton, there's an elderly Verges ("when the age is in, the wit is out"). Dogberry, to emphasise the civilians in uniform interpretation, is Captain Mainwaring of Dad's Army in place of Michael Keaton's slurred film character.

Hay is all for elucidating a set text. However, he is more concerned about "performance rather than the academic side" and he disapproves of students reading from the play during performances. "They should be absorbed by the atmosphere".

Like all good directors, his talent is to make himself and his material clear and then, occasionally, to perplex. "Dogberry," he says, "is the most honest character on stage." Discuss, without reference to film or TV.

Until March 2, with a school workshop, followed by a matinee performance, at 11.30am on February 22. Tickets: 0117 987 7877

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