Set at the Hotel Messina, Sicily, in an unspecified period — though the costumes would suggest the late 1930s — the star of the show is Anna Fleischle’s set, with its revolving foyer and lift carriage boxes which rise and fall either side of the main stage, focusing the audience’s attention whilst allowing for some neatly-executed backstage changes. During these moments we learn that a war has been won, we join a celebratory masked ball, a wedding and a funeral, as well as various private romantic trysts, secret plots and public denouncements. Even an ice cream cart serves as a hiding place, resulting in a particularly sticky situation.
In the post-Weinstein, Me Too era, the power which men continue to wield over women remains starkly evident and never more obviously so than when watching a 500 year old play where unimpeachable evidence of a female’s fidelity and innocence are required by fathers and potential husbands alike. It’s a timely reminder that a woman’s reputation and entire future can be destroyed by a simple assertion delivered by fiendish man with ulterior motives, yet a disreputable philandering male, remains a figure to admire and celebrate.
John Heffernan delivers Benedick’s jovial quipswith perfect timing and a genuinely naive awkwardness which wouldn’t be out of place in a PG Wodehouse drama. It’s a charming and engaging approach balanced by Katherine Parkinson‘s embodiment of Beatrice as droll and forthright, which enables her to accentuate the witty farcical elements whilst remaining a fully integrated central figure, rather than simply a cynical observer on the periphery of the action. “Speak Count, ‘tis your cue” is her mocking I do prompt at the wedding where everything she holds dear is about to unravel for Claudio and Hero (Eben Figueiredo and Ioanna Kimbook respectively, playing the manipulated betrothed lovers).
Simon Godwin’s jaunty direction allows for full realisation of the slapstick elements of the set design and he’s covered his bases with on-stage musicians, a chronically Malaprop-spitting Dogberry (the Head of Hotel Security, played by David Fynn) who unearths the dastardly plot around which much of the plot revolves, and a total crowd-pleaser of an ending involving the entire cast in a musical number with balloons.
It would be all-too-easy to pick holes in the speed of some of the emotional transitions, but the National Theatre finally seems to be making some positive headway after a difficult period and I’d dare anyone not to have a blast at this fun and emotionally charged evening.