[review originally published here]
Inspired by avant-garde group The Factory, the ‘rules’ of the Bright-Dukes-Maltby Much Ado are myriad, and their theatrical game enjoyable. There’s promenade, props supplied by the audience, and ‘tasks’ imposed by a bowler-hatted Sam Bright. Conceived and led by Lindsay Dukes as Beatrice, the O’Reilly’s latest experiment deserves much praise.
The cast is strong. The comedians particularly shine, with Joe Eyre’s Borachio, John-Mark Philo’s Dogberry, and Joe McAloon’s Verges thriving on the chaos throughout. I found myself laughing aloud: a rare treat at press previews. Of the lovers, Dukes’s Beatrice has great energy and comic skill; unfortunately, she rather gallops through Beatrice’s psychology. Both the revelation of her reciprocated love for Benedick and her rage against Claudio are taken much too fast. We must remember that speed isn’t passion. However, the originality and talent of Dukes’s performance emerge whenever she slows down.
Conversely, James Corrigan’s Benedick begins weakly but improves; their love scene is the play’s subtlest, mature and melancholic. Isabel Drury is the production’s greatest surprise, creating in Hero an honesty and emotional intensity that indicate Drury’s right to larger and more rewarding roles.
The company could benefit from a firmer hand with the storytelling. Enraptured by the creative process, there are moments when the verse is garbled, the play’s essence reduced to a convenient coathanger for the antics of an improv troupe. Intensive vocal work would help, as would lighter shoes so that one actor’s lines aren’t drowned by the feet of fourteen others.
This ambitious production marries ideas from the best in professional theatre practice with the freshness and idealism on which student theatre thrives. Liberated from the commercial demands of professional theatre, we students can afford experimentation even in a recession. Above all, our theatre allows us to create spaces in which to do what students do best: imagine, endeavour, and learn.
The highlights of my Much Ado were Dukes’s hiding in a hatstand, Philo’s singing from a shopping trolley, and the incredible acrobatics of Eyre. Yours will be different. With all its variations, this Much Ado will be a first rate show, every night of the week.
Dr Sophie Duncan is Fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She works regularly as a historical advisor and as a dramaturg for theatre, TV, radio and film. She likes theatre, detective fiction and cocktails.