Blackfriars Playhouse: “Much Ado About Nothing”

On the boards this last night of the Blackfriars Conference was “Much Ado About Nothing.” Going in I had to remind myself that I had “Much Ado” saturation. It happened a few years ago with “Hamlet,” too. You see so many versions of the same play in a short period of time—on campus in March, multiple OPS Fest performances in July, in Montreal and in London as recently as August—that it is hard to both not get a bit bored and a bit critical. And yet.

Sometimes simple is best. A brilliant view helps.

The pertinent seat assignment on my conference name tag.

I had one of the coveted “gallant stools,” the seats right on the stage, for this last night, and everything was different. I had been experiencing some sound discomfort being in the first four rows of the raked seats: I was right in the line of a sound tunnel and had felt as if I was being shouted at the whole time. On the stage, however, the volume was perfect. I was asked to dance, had my stool stolen for the Dogberry deposition scene, and had all the access I could have wanted. Albeit I’m a sucker for just this kind of experience: the brush of a costume going by for an entrance, the need for a poncho because you might be too close to a blood splash. I was painfully aware that I was also being watched by the rest of the room (and could understand why that would be a palatable deterrent for some playgoers), but it worked for me.

That, and my seat was “Q1.” For Shakespeare critics, this is how we typically refer to the earliest quarto printing of a play in the early modern period. Quartos—made up of sheets of paper folded in four—were the pocketable, portable, single-text printings of plays. You frequently hear about the more lavish “first folio,” the book that first collected together in print Shakespeare’s oeuvre; in general, however, the quartos came first. They also typically (but not always) have marked variants to the folio versions, and in teaching those variants with a performance interest, I increasingly suspect they reflect staging efficiencies more accurately than the readerly and edited folios. It was a brilliant moment where bibliographic studies and performance history collided in my seat.

This is to say that, due to my personal sympathies, this production was starting on the right foot. But what won me over, more than the previous two performances seen this week at the Blackfriars Playhouse, was the actual use of identifiable original practices in the performance. Now, each production at the theatre has its own distinct director, so this varies. In the previous two (here, here), while some strategies were being used, aside from the venue and the universal lighting, they were particularly noticeable. Here was a spare production that used very few props (almost to the degree of a bare stage) and distinct continuous action to let the play speak. By that I mean, by listening to the text and applying the conditions that it was designed for, the story was crisp and needed no help, no outside interpretation to effect a particular, rich theatrical experience.

One cannot underestimate the power of continuous action. This is the practice of having actors enter for a new scene while the previous group exits simultaneously. This is how you get a Shakespeare text closer to clocking in at two hours. Additionally, overlapping time is far more interesting than segmented time, as it (a) puts characters onstage together that might never be otherwise, and (b) visually makes connections you might not otherwise leap to. I was converted to this in 2014 when I saw a production of “1 Henry IV” with my mother at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. (I was doing my PhD then and she is a high school English teacher, so the experience was very moving for the both of us on a couple levels.) Hal entered with a flagon of wine while Hotspur and Kate were finishing their only scene of real intimacy, concluding with a kiss. Hal drank and watched on.

The small choice made many connections at once. First, it put Hal and Hotpsur onstage together before the great battle scene. You can see their lives being concretely juxtaposed—Hal the virtuous playboy and Hotspur the effective but too-ambitious soldier. You see what Henry IV sees. Second, it forecasts that Hal too will come to have a Kate of his own by the end of “Henry V,” substituting for Hotspur in every way eventually. This rewards knowing audiences up on either their history or Shakespeare. Third, the longing observation by Hal suggests a different kind of solitude that he never expresses but could be imagined: for a wife. Again, if you then saw “Henry V,” his courtship of the French princess seems less abrupt, less stuck out of time, and possibly a product of a long-standing loneliness. In other words, using original practices techniques enables interpretation rather than forecloses it.

In this “Much Ado” it was similarly successful. The vile Don John (Josh Innerst) lingered over his exits, several times leaning only halfway through the door frame to watch happy lovers and bridal preparations from which he is both excluded and has no emotional space to engage with. It gave the actor an avenue to complicate the villain as a perpetual outsider. This didn’t excuse his behavior, but did provide a possible location for motive. The play also features two famous overhearing scenes where Benedick (David Anthony Lewis) and then Beatrice (Allison Glenzer) spy on planted conversations about how the one is in love with the other. While the space doesn’t have the Globe’s pillars for all-purpose hiding, it does have a balcony and a discovery space. I blithely assumed this is what would be used. Instead, they used the galleries themselves, sightlines, and a very basic prop each. This exaggerated the absurdity of both Ben and Bea thinking they are not seen and, perhaps more importantly, asked the audience to actively participate in the imaginative work of justifying how they are not seen.

I have a guess that the table used for Benedick—under which he hid and carried about—and the garden tresses—replete with handles to rotate so that at different times we were behind and hiding with Beatrice and then in front and complicit with her cousin—were inspired by the conjectural drawings of C. Walter Hodges. They were basic but they were brilliant in that they asked us to meet the actors halfway in which the period costumes and period venue did not. As a playgoer at Shakespeare’s Globe or the Wanamaker Playhouse in London or here in Staunton, one is cognitively engaged in both different and, I think, less work if done in period costume, venue, and text. Of the things I realized in this performance, most surprising is that fewer props, and barer stage when it comes to objects, may be phenomenologically important to Elizabethan theatre: you can’t spell it all out. Spell most of it out, definitely, but asking playgoers to imagine the further extents of a simple object (i.e., a small, mobile lattice standing in for a long garden hedge) invites them into the world.

Again, the great view might just have had something to do with it.

From C. Walter Hodges, Enter the Whole Army: A Pictorial Study of Shakespearean Staging, 1576-1616 (Cambridge UP, 1999).

  • The American Shakespeare Center’s production of Much Ado About Nothing plays at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, VA, 15 June to 26 November 2017.
  • Tickets available online or at the box office.
  • Follow along with the conference on Twitter: #BFConf17.

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