Stratford's Much Ado About Nothing

One of the biggest problems I have with theatrical productions in general, but especially productions of Shakespeare, is the tendency of creatives to give their show a totally arbitrary setting and aesthetic. At best, this can be an amusing showcase of the creativity of the designers. At worst, the new setting can undermine the text and feel totally appropriative. I tend to feel uncomfortable with 'reimagined' settings no matter how unobstrusive they are, which is why I feel at a loss to describe my feelings about the Festival Theatre's production of Much Ado About Nothing. Light and engaging, with an appealing cast, Much Ado nonetheless has a troubling attitude towards its setting and the setting's culture.

Set in Brazil at the turn of the century, the kind of time where designer Santo Loquasto's designs and silhouettes can really shine and be luscious, Much Ado's plot has two main plots. In a time of temporary peace, Beatrice and Benedick deny their attraction to each other despite everyone around trying to make them a couple. Meanwhile, Beatrice's cousin Hero is accused of being unfaithful to her love Claudio by her father Leonato. These accusations of impurity are planted by Don John, who is determined to bring trouble to the house of Leonato.

As Beatrice and Benedick, real life couple Deborah Hay and Ben Carlson are simply adorable. Ms Hay has the rare physicality of old-school comediennes like Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett. This quality is complemented wonderfully by the more aural humour that Mr Carlson possesses. The charisma of these two stars keeps the first half of the play light as a souffle, making the abrupt tonal shift halfway more effective.

James Blendick brings a great gravitas to the role of Leonato, which is too often played like a more red-blooded Polonius. Gareth Potter is having great fun in the role of Don John.

Bethany Jillard as Hero is appropriately demure in the face of wrongful accusation, and has a good amount of chemistry with Tyrone Savage's Claudio.

All in all, this is a good-looking and charismatic cast that works quite well as an ensemble. Along with the lovely set and costumes, I really should love this production.

But the arbitrary setting is actually really distracting and problematic. Let me illustrate.

I remember seeing a the COC's production of Carmen a few years ago, which was set in Cuba during the 1930's. Apart from the local references in the text which were made nonsensical by the new setting, there is also the consequential fact that the nation of Cuba has banned bull-fighting since its independence in 1901. Banning the blood sport was part of the effort to establish a new Cuba, independent from its colonizers. So in this Carmen, there wouldn't have been a toreador for 30 years or so, which eradicates the setting of Act 5, the character of Escamillo, and that wonderfully catchy song that we all love. The creatives' willful ignorance of this fact undermined the opera's libretto and whatever gambit the director had had to make Carmen relevant or fresh.

When I watched Much Ado About Nothing, I felt the same kind of uncomfortable sensation that I felt with Carmen. I wondered why. The Brazilian setting is totally arbitrary, true, but it seemed harmless. And then I read the director's notes.

Having studied magic realism, I can say that a) Much Ado About Nothing, as a text in general and specifically to this production, has few, if any, elements of magic realism and b) even if it had, magic realism is not a genre that has a geographically specific setting. Several well-known works in this mode are indigenous to South and Central America, but setting Much Ado in Brazil does not automatically qualify it as a magic realist work.

(nor did the first books and stories classified as magic realism originate in Brazil)

Like practically any Northerner or Westerner who uses this term, Christopher Newton takes magic realism to mean anything South American or vaguely exotic, something that he, as a first-worlder, cannot understand or relate to his own world-view.

Secondly, it is soooooo gross to refer to an actual nation with an actual history and actual people as a magical place or a fairy-tale land. It exoticizes and others a very substantial place, making it nothing more than a carpet to lay on the stage or a style to adapt for a play. Stomping on Brazil's history is culturally appropriative and stinks of the privileged, white, and North American pretensions that I loathe in theatre.

Thirdly, referencing an actual South American work which is considered magic realism, Chronicle of a Death Foretold (Gabriel Garcia Marquez) I feel that the South American setting of this production may actually undermine the play's text. Both Chronicle and Much Ado have at their crux a wedding deterred by accusations of impurity on the bride's part.

In Much Ado, it is Hero who shoulders all the blame. Her father is enraged with her and wishes her dead.

In Chronicle, however, the bride Angela- though she loses her marriageability when it is discovered she isn't a virgin -is not outwardly punished. Her brothers ask her who she slept with, she tells him, and the man who defiled her is killed. If there had been this amount of investigation in the plot of Much Ado, there wouldn't have been much ado at all.

Don John's machinations make no sense in a South American context. The unspoken code of machismo would demand that the man who slept with the taken girl be punished for his crime, but the girl would have been left alone. Leonato's wrath would have been with the man who slept with Hero, not with Hero. This is a gross misunderstanding that derails Shakespeare's text.

This is the kind of thoughtlessness that introduces even more plotholes than are strictly necessary. When creatives don't think through or research their choices, they create nonsense worlds where people take outside naps in the middle of winter and where 1930s Cuba celebrates its bullfighting. But more and more, arbitrary and ill-thought-out settings are becoming the norm, and even celebrated.

I really enjoyed watching Much Ado About Nothing, but the clunky and problematic setting detracted from my enjoyment. Using a whole country and its rich history as justification for catchy music and fun dance in a production is never okay. This is by far the most mixed review I've ever written, but hopefully it provokes some thought and discussion.

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