“Is it not strange…”
The Faction weren’t kidding when they said they were breaking out of the rep model that has characterised their output for the last few years. Earlier this summer saw them take Vassa Zheleznova to the Southwark Playhouse and now they’re appearing at the reFASHIONed Theatre. What’s that I hear you cry, why it’s a pop-up space on the lower ground floor of Selfridges just past the luggage where a newly commissioned version of Much Ado About Nothing is paying its own tribute to Shakespeare400.
Director Mark Leipacher and co-director Rachel Valentine Smith have slimmed the play down to a neat 90 minutes, without too much damage (unless you’re a big fan of the Watch) and with a nod to the sleekly contemporary surroundings of the reFASHIONed space, introduced digital cameos to supplement their 9-strong cast. So Simon Callow and Rufus Hound pop up on CCTV footage as Dogberry and Verges, and Meera Syal appears regularly onscreen as a reporter for Messina News, filling us in on the breaking news whether on TV or on Twitter-streams.
It’s an intriguing innovation but a slightly awkward one too as these characters have to interact with the onstage cast and even with the best timing in the world, there’s something somewhat stilted in their conversing. The production is much stronger in its IRL state, the youthful company recasting the familiar characters anew. We feel this most in the central Benedick and Beatrice, Daniel Boyd and Alison O’Donnell are too young to have had their hearts truly, ruefully, bruised by life and so their’s ends up feeling like a flame that has barely flickered out,
And it’s no bad thing. Their chemistry is evident from the get-go, Boyd’s Benedick much more clown than CO and O’Donnell’s smart and sharp Scotswoman clearly enjoying their verbal jousting and scarcely hiding that passion longing to be powerfully reignited. The discovery of those feelings in the two key revelation scenes are joyously mounted via a copy of La Repubblica, some artfully placed branches and no small amount of hilarious crawling on the floor. Lowri Izzard and Harry Lister Smith make an appealingly naive pairing of Hero and Claudio too, easily swayed by sneaky swigs from the champagne bottle and trending topics.
There’s strong support too from Caroline Langrishe’s Leonata, delightfully witty when toying with Benedick but steely-eyed when meting out her own form of justice and from Jude Owusu’s bullish Don Pedro but as sparky as Tala Gouveia is though, I’m still waiting for a production of Much Ado… that convinces me why Margaret doesn’t just ‘fess up quickly to her misdemeanours. Minor grumble aside, this is a strong collaboration and the Faction feel like the ideal partners in this venture – unafraid to give us a modern, stripped-down version of the play to suit what could be a very different audience. And who knows, if it takes off we could be visiting any number of high-end shops for the The Merry Wives of Liberty, The Two Gentlemen of Harvey Nichols, Harrods Part 1 and Part 2…