HER Productions, Girl Gang Manchester & Unseemly Women
Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester
August 18-27, 2022 (also Shakespeare North Playhouse, Prescot, August 30 - September 4);
2 hrs 30 min
Confessions: this was my first time at Hope Mill, and my proficiency in feminist criticism is impossibly rusty and several decades out of date. I have seen lots of productions of Much Ado About Nothing – the last only a few weeks ago – I have seen spin-offs, tributes and travesties.
None of that matters. This version, directed by Kayleigh Hawkins and aimed at “creating a platform for performers who may have felt excluded or limited within classics due to gender or casting stereotypes”, is accessible, joyous, relaxed and hugely funny. Just like a really good night out with your girlfriends, then…
The opening scene is a flashback to Beatrice and Benedick’s backstory. But later I struggled to remember if the two people who tumbled into bed together and then out of it very separately were in fact those two. Was I the only one not concentrating enough from the outset for this to work? Either way I wasn’t quite sure what the scene added, other than to set the uplifting musical tone and energy level that would sustain the whole play.
But then we were off. Two very hard-working sun loungers and a stone cupid do most of the heavy lifting on what is a surprisingly traditional proscenium arch-style set. But it provides the supporting structure for the pounding beats of the dance music (much of which will have been gracing weddings up and down the country this summer) and the frenetic pace that sweeps all along.
A word here about delivery. I don’t recall ever hearing an audience laugh so uproariously at Shakespeare’s jokes. It could have been a Peter Kay set – his trademark combination of wordplay and physicality – but whatever the action, the language was as clear as a bell. Clearly it was an in-crowd for the opening night and I’m sure many were very familiar with the text, but it was a delight to hear such an enthusiastic reception.
The gender/fluid identity/feminist threads the production brings to a play already jam-packed with keen observation of patriarchy and the expectation of female subservience are lightly worn, and don't always follow through. In the first half, Leonato (Louise McNulty) and Innogen (Janelle Thompson) both celebrate Hero’s marriage prospects with infectious, girlish glee. By the second half I was no longer sure how Leonato was being presented, the outrage at the shaming of Hero failing to convince from any perspective.
Innogen, restored to the text (Shakespeare’s original non-speaking “ghost” part is often excised completely) and given Antonio’s lines, brings balance and defends her daughter with true maternal ferocity.
Claudio (Daisie Moore) is a little too close to a pantomime principal boy at times; too slight for the soldier and aggrieved betrothed. In contrast, the shock of Hero’s abuse is, ironically, somewhat undermined by the energetic Mia Gibson.
Beatrice (Lucy Keirl) is glorious, but Benedick (Rachael Gill-Davis) steals the show. A bravura duet with a pair of sunglasses (and a fleeting resemblance to Ozzy Osbourne as s/he sprawls on the sun lounger) sets the standard. Their timing is spot-on, the slapstick both manic and beautifully choreographed, and as Team Hero their powerful loyalty is convincing.
Take young people (though you might want to cover their eyes during Margaret’s moment in the sun), for this is a true joy.
More info and tickets here