Much Ado About Nothing. Theatre Royal, Bath. June 29 to August 6. Tickets: 01225 448844
Much Ado About Nothing is about love. Returning from a war, Claudio falls in love with Hero, and Benedict is tricked by his friends into admitting his love for Beatrice, despite the couple claiming they don't care for each other. Then Claudio is deceived into thinking that Hero has been unfaithful and rejects her during their wedding.
"Although I have produced the play several times, I've never directed it," says director Sir Peter Hall. "One of the primary reasons for doing a hands-on job now was that I had the chance to work with Janie Dee, who wanted to play Beatrice."
His production aims to restore the balance of the play. "Beatrice and Benedict have run away with Much Ado," he says. "If you look at the play afresh, the main plot is about Claudio and Hero - and about the brothers Don Pedro and Don John - and the subplot is Beatrice and Benedict. But these two are so dazzlingly alive that they've dominated past productions."
Hall avoids Elizabethan dress because "it looks so artificial and dehumanising to our eyes", but stresses that the setting must make it clear that "Messina is a garrison town and the men are soldiers. It's terribly important to have a strong sense of a military regiment which, having fought a war, has now retired for a month's leave."
He also aims "to embrace the dark and emotional side of the story - Claudio's jealous rejection of Hero - and the comedy of Beatrice and Benedict then comes out all the stronger.
"The thing that fascinates me about Much Ado is that it has a tone quite unlike any other Shakespeare play. It's mainly in prose and it has an atmosphere of gossip and flirtation, and of not quite saying what you mean".
Hall sees Benedict as "a very highly sexed man, who's had a lot of casual success with women, but is scared stiff about commitment - which is not uncommon". Beatrice, by contrast, is "very freely spoken and behaves with the candour of a man in a man's world. Like many Shakespearean women, she's more intelligent than the men. She waves the banner of female emancipation."
Young people, says Hall, should "realise that, when it's properly spoken, Shakespeare is very easy to understand. The way to make Shakespeare relevant is to prevent teachers from reading the best parts, to throw away explanatory notes, and to put the work on its feet as a play."