Mix 'n' match

27th February 2004 at 00:00
Much Ado About Nothing. By William Shakespeare. The Byre Theatre, St Andrews

When he wrote Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare daringly mixed two genres, wicked comedy and serious tragedy, to tell two tales of love.

In one, Benedict and Beatrice protest so loudly about not caring for each other that they have to be tricked into admitting their love; in the other, Claudio is deceived into thinking that Hero has been unfaithful and rejects her during their wedding. When she faints, her cousin Beatrice demands that Benedict proves his love by challenging Claudio to a duel.

Director Steven Little says the play "is one of the Shakespeares I enjoy and understand very well - it helped open my eyes to the possibilities of theatre. Initially, it's a bit confusing, but actually it is an incredibly simple, charming play. It starts off light and witty, and then the real drama comes along."

His production is set in Italy in the 1870s, just after the unification of the country, which explains the role of the soldiers in the play. "This makes perfect sense as a military world which really cannot exist after the horrors of the Great War. It's a world where war involves skirmishes and where everyone returns home alive."

The play is "about love and war, with the war being not only literal war but also war between lovers and brothers," says Little. "There's also a great contrast between the two couples. The love of Claudio and Hero is about marrying well and for political reasons, and their willingness to accept that."

With Benedict and Beatrice, however, you get a "more mature, second-time around romance". In the text, "it's very clear that both of them have been here before, and Beatrice talks about having once given her heart and been rejected, while Benedict is terrified of being betrayed and made a cuckold." Young audiences might recognise that both are commitment-phobes.

Meanwhile, at the Theatre Royal in Bath, the annual Shakespeare Festival stages a daring co-production of Much Ado About Nothing with the Bremer Shakespeare Company. As directed by Peter Lychinger, this version energetically tackles the bard with a small cast that provocatively doubles roles, with the same actress playing Beatrice and Claudio. It's a spirited mix of physical comedy and high tragedy.

The Byre Theatre until March 13, box office tel: 01334 475 000; education officer Heather Mitchell tel: 01334 468 731 www.byretheatre.com Bath Shakespeare Festival, March 3-6, box office tel: 01225 448844

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