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From left: Allison Edwards-Crewe as Hero, Austin Eckert as Claudio, Patrick McManus as Leonato and Akosua Amo-Adem as Ursula in Much Ado About Nothing. Stratford Festival 2023.Handout

  • Title: Much Ado About Nothing
  • Written by: William Shakespeare with additional text by Erin Shields
  • Director: Chris Abraham
  • Actors: Graham Abbey, Maev Beaty
  • Company: Stratford Festival
  • Venue: Festival Theatre
  • City: Stratford, Ont.
  • Year: Runs to Oct. 27

Critic’s Pick

The Stratford Festival’s sweet spot is clever and crowd-pleasing productions of William Shakespeare’s comedies on the Festival Theatre’s famous thrust stage.

But director Chris Abraham’s new period production of Much Ado About Nothing is really something else.

All The Globe’s reviews from the 2023 Stratford Festival and Shaw Festival so far

I mean that in terms of the exceedingly high quality of its performances, direction and design that has some folks already talking about it as a shoo-in for future lists of all-time greatest Stratford shows.

But I also mean that in terms of it being, well, something else: some small but significant textual additions by the classically inclined feminist playwright Erin Shields that make this Much Ado different from others that have come before – and, I hope this isn’t too sacrilegious to say, more satisfying as a piece of drama.

Much Ado About Nothing, a perennial favourite despite a conclusion that can be clunky, is about a group of friends who constantly pull pranks on each other – and yet are unable to detect even the most obvious tricks played on them. It’s about trolls getting trolled.

At the heart of the Italy-set romp is the “merry war” between Benedick (Graham Abbey) and Beatrice (Maev Beaty) – the prototypical original rom-com will-they, won’t-they couple.

Abbey and Beaty are wonderful as these sparring partners, more understandably unattached than usual at the start of the play owing to the former’s hideous goatee and the latter’s cat-lady coiffure.

It’s Don Pedro (André Sills), Leonato (Patrick McManus) and the young Claudio (Austin Eckert) who endeavour to get this stubborn pair of singles together.

The classic scene where Benedick is set up to overhear them talking about how Beatrice is madly in love with him is here executed with a mix of perfectly timed physical comedy from Abbey, and neatly distinguished performances by Sills, McManus and Eckert as amateur actors struggling to get through the ruse without freezing or corpsing.

In the subsequent scene where Benedick preens in front of Beatrice, the stage business Abraham has devised on Julie Fox’s sumptuous set – a subtropical Mediterranean garden of citrus trees and statues with a giant symbolic ring hanging over it – is so next-level funny, I don’t want to spoil a moment through description.

If Abbey scores slightly higher in hilarity by hamming it up to just under the legal limit, Beaty’s performance slightly surpasses his performance in depth. Her alternately aching and edgy Beatrice is aware of the unfairness toward women in the society she is stuck in and, heartbreakingly, finds it nearly impossible to ignore it long enough to let herself love. (A Shields-penned prologue she gets to speak neatly frames this for the audience.)

When Benedick finds the way through the maze to Beatrice’s heart, by becoming the kind of man she can love under the circumstances, I cheered and teared up at once.

The other main plot of Much Ado involves Don John (Michael Blake) – Don Pedro’s no-good brother – plotting to undo the other men by making them believe that Hero (Allison Edwards-Crewe), Leonato’s daughter and Claudio’s fiancée, has a secret lover.

This is an arc in which the male characters all exhibit attitudes that sit somewhere between garden-variety toxic masculinity and full-blown misogyny. The way Shakespeare resolves it – with an implausible faked death followed by an unbelievable last-minute reconciliation – is hard to pull off on stage without significant directorial intervention.

For this production, however, Abraham has outsourced that problem to Shields.

I’m not, in general, a big fan of rewriting sections of Shakespeare; too often it’s cringe, and when done solely in the aim of making a show more palatable for modern sensibilities, it can flatten the complexity and difference in perspective that makes old work worth engaging with in the first place.

But the dialogue judiciously added into the final scene here expands Shakespeare’s characters and is not at cross purposes with his intentions.

Hero is given a voice, as expected, but, movingly, Claudio is also given the opportunity to reckon with his actions; you feel hope for the pair’s future as a couple.

Abraham establishes a tone where a bit of new seems natural. He’s encouraged the actors to acknowledge the presence of the audience members who are the ur-eavedroppers in this play about “noting,” as well as occasional ad libbing.

The comedy lands consistently – including the often tedious business involving the dimwitted detective Dogberry (Josue Laboucane) who figures out what’s going on with Don John. That whole subplot benefits from underemphasizing the malapropisms, a quick pace and an ensemble of actors individualizing all the members of the neighbourhood watch so they end up as loveable as the Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Abraham’s production is, indeed, characterized by delightful, distinct performances in small roles. (I can’t name them all, but Akosua Amo-Adem: Best. Ursula. Ever.)

Do I need to defend rewriting Shakespeare? Skeptics should recall that the bard was barely cold in the ground long before other playwrights started to meddle with his words – and the idea of being true to a text is essentially a 20th-century one.

In certain eras, revised versions of Shakespeare’s plays such as Nahum Tate’s happy-ending King Lear circa 1681 became the standard ones.

The contrast with this Much Ado is that Shields’s work restores a happy ending to the play: Shakespeare’s comedies always end with somebody left out of the concluding festivities – but the ones that end with forced marriages, religious conversions or women submitting can leave the audience out of them, too. This production is Shakespeare neither rejected nor revered – but loved.

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