MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING at the Duke of York’s Theatre
“it is the high exuberance of everyone that comes through the strongest”
The National Youth Theatre REP Company celebrates its 10th anniversary with a joyous romp through Shakespeare’s couples comedy in one of the West End’s most prestigious theatres.
Reinterpreting the text for a youthful cast and audience, in a version not ‘adapted’ according to the programme but ‘remixed’ by Debris Stevenson, the setting becomes Nowhere Island, a reality TV dating show. We get to see the players both on and off camera, on set and behind the scenes and, most engagingly, how the characters are manipulated and controlled by the TV show’s creators. There is, as appears to be the norm nowadays, a lot of additional non-Shakespearean text, including a plasma screen that rolls ‘live audience’ social media comments, but this should not upset the purist. This is a well thought through concept – ninety minutes, no interval – and it works.
Josie Daxter directs a sixteen-strong ensemble around a revolving set (Designer Zoë Hurwitz) which we witness being de-constructed at the end of the show to reveal the bare walls of the space behind. The large number of people on stage sometimes looks cluttered and their movements clumsy, but it is the high exuberance of everyone that comes through the strongest.
With a sassy rendition of Sigh No More Ladies to start things off as a theme tune to the TV show, we hear the players humming Hey Nonny Nonny even when not on camera, an earworm that they can’t shake off. This is an ensemble of good-lookers with pecs and midriffs on show. The girls pose and pout. The boys show off with testosterone-imbued hip-thrusting movements. Subtle, it ain’t. But in contrast, any personal insights into a character’s feelings are admitted privately in front of a screen in the ‘diary room’. Genius.
In Much Ado we have to rely on a strong Beatrice and Benedick and in Isolde Fenton and Daniel Cawley we are in good hands. It is an inauspicious start, however, with the early repartee between them performed in rap but things can only get better and they do. Fenton soon shines, her confident performance leading into an especially passionate display of Beatrice’s ‘O were I a man’ speech whilst Cawley’s cheeky chappie approach to Benedick is endearing and loveable.
Despite the radical re-creation of much of the play, this young cast exhibits a good feeling for the poetry – something that another large house was unable to achieve in a recent production. Hannah Zoé Ankrah as Friar, as well as Fenton and Cawley, are particularly strong in this regard.
Other special mentions go to Jessica Enemokwu as Leonato – the TV show producer – who is in full control of proceedings (ditch the megaphone though); Tomás Azócar-Nevin as Conrade, understated but just right; and Jasmine Ricketts as Don John who, after all is done, returns alone to a bare stage and exhibits a brave postlude breakdown that hints at her character’s mental illness. Finally, for one of the bravest and raunchiest staged love scenes between Borachio (Dalumuzi Moyo) and Margaret (Nathaly Sabino) I have seen – Bravo.
“multi-talented young actors tell this compulsive and provocative story”
The Royal Theatre in Northampton re-opens with a superb production from the National Youth Theatre REP Company of George Orwell’s fairy tale/allegory adapted for the stage by Tatty Hennessy.
We are introduced to the main players with a recorded voice-over (Will Stewart). Each animal has been clearly well workshopped and is meticulously caricatured. There is no wearing of animal masks, and little crawling on all fours. Base costumes (Jasmine Swan) are adorned with small signifiers: the pigs wear pink gilets; Minty the sheep, a white tutu and woollen bobble hat; the horses, brown leather belts and straps.
The simplicity of the set (Jasmine Swan), a backdrop of hanging plastic strips, allows the flexibility of multiple entrance and exit points and when the light catches their mud and dirt it gives a looming feeling of the abattoir. Generally effective lighting (Zoe Spurr) includes the dramatic landing of a helicopter, sensational backlit scenes to cast warning shadows and the occasional dramatic use of colour.
Director Ed Stambollouian intersperses full ensemble pieces with scenes focusing on individual characters where each animal gets their turn in the limelight. Each animal could carry more of the story, but all animals are not equal. Napoleon (Jack Matthew) is the main man (pig!) – the self-proclaimed leader of the Revolution. His transformation from pig to man-equal is the more impressive as he fights the animalistic urge to slip back squealing into the mud. Squealer (Matilda Rae) is the political spin-doctor, beautifully conniving and deceitful. The carthorse Boxer (Will Atiomo) with his maxim of “I will work harder” shows fine vocal colour and excellent physical movement. Much of the narration falls upon the mare Clover (Adeola Yemitan) who shines in her poignant personal scene.
The full ensemble scenes are rhythmic and physical (choreography by Vicki Igbokwe) with inventive and ingenious uses of buckets and ladders although handling of the latter sometimes appears clumsy in the close confines of the Royal stage. The hip-hop dance scene counting the seven animal commandments particularly stands out and the singing of the anthem Beasts of England (Composer John Elliott, Musical Director Jordan Clarke) would not sound out of place sung from the barricades of another revolutionary stage show. Whilst the initial Revolution seems too easily won, the Battle of the Cowshed is brilliantly portrayed: animals in formation across all angles of the stage defeat the cartoonish Farmer Giles with kick-ass action (Fight Director Enric Fortuño).
The second half does not sustain the dynamisms of the first as the size of the ensemble reduces, but it does include the most unsettling scene of the evening involving the worrying use of metal pails which evoke shades of the Lubyanka and Guantánamo.
The writer hopes in her programme notes that the show will make us angry. We clearly see how the hard work of the proletariat is exploited by the autocracy, how the honesty of the workers’ revolution is betrayed by its leaders. We see the lies and scheming of politicians as they push through their own vanity projects, air brush history, and steal from the populace… But after seeing these multi-talented young actors tell this compulsive and provocative story on stage I came away primarily with a satisfied feeling that such stories are once again being told. The anger can come later.