‘Sigh no more, ladies ,sigh no more, Men were deceivers ever.’
Balthasar, A2 S3
One of the first conversations needed to be held when choosing to tackle a Shakespeare text with young people is to recall your own summative recollection of it. If you ask most people to summarise Much Ado About Nothing they will think back to when they studied it at school, saw it on stage or watched the 1993 Branagh film and they will fondly remember the "merry war betwixt" Benedick and Beatrice, leaving the audience in fits of laughter at the tirade of abuse the two thrust towards the other. However, some will look straight past the light-hearted "will they, won't they" sub-plot of these two lovers and vent their fury at the appalling treatment of Hero by the majority of the males in her life, as well as the manipulation Margaret suffers at the hands of Borachio and Don John.
When I think back to my time at school, Shakespeare was only ever introduced to me twice* throughout my 7 years of secondary education: once by a visiting theatre company, and once by an English teacher who clearly had no desire to try and tackle the Bard with a class mostly populated by middle-achieving, working class boys whom had no interest in anything other than football (I greatly played to stereotype as a youngster). So, when I did finally get around to reading Much Ado in my late twenties, it was the excruciating-to-witness mistreatment of the females of the play which greatly resonated with me. Therefore, I am glad that my English teacher hadn't persevered as I would have only recalled the comedy of the play – especially Dogberry, because who can resist an idiot!? (*I must mention that my A Level teacher didn't neglect Elizabethan playwrighting, opting to introduce us to both Marlowe and Ford over Shakespeare).
Initial discussions around the directorial concept for Much Ado where the suggestion to present fully cross-gender (boys play girls, girls play boys) version with great emphasis on the comedy were tabled and agreed upon in the Summer of 2017. It is fair to say that at this point, nobody could have foreseen the New York Times' exclusive report on Harvey Weinstein dropping at beginning of October. The report led to the much-needed discussion on the mistreatment of females and drew international attention to the Me Too hashtag which was set-up as a "framework for how to do the work of ending sexual violence" (Tarana Burke talking to Time magazine in 2017). How could we therefore ignore the glaring parallels between Shakespeare's comedy of the Elizabethan era and the world of today?
It was therefore decided that we would no longer opt for a cross-gender casting of the performance as we did not want the comedic value brought when men play females to overshadow our new concept. To do this we took inspiration from Michelle Terry's vision with the Globe and adopted a gender blind approach to our casting, which in turn led us to alter the gender of some of the characters of the play to reflect the greater levels of equality in society of today. This decision was also taken with the aim that our production will broaden the focus from mistreatment of females by males but to a wider discussion upon the mistreatment, manipulation and disregard of the vulnerable by those in power.
We did worry as to how our cast would respond to these changes, especially those females tasked with playing strong male characters as female. As you may have already guessed, there was no need to worry when you get to work with such a strong, resilient and talented group of young actors. It has been an exciting process so far, leading us to many highlights in rehearsal and discussions around the text which I'm sure my old English teacher would be extremely jealous of! A personal highlight has been the discovery made by Anya, Ella and Nancy that by changing the gender of Don Pedro, Friar Francis and Balthasar respectively to female has meant that these characters now have a greater level of depth with their conflicts of interest in serving their respective positions and gender.
I'm extremely excited to be directing this show and I hope that you take the time to invest in these young people – you really won't regret it!
Thursday 19th - Saturday 21st July at NST City