Salient. The Newspaper of Victoria University College, Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 19, No. 3. March 24, 1955
Drama Critic Applauds... — "Much Ado" Very Successful — Kudos For Dramatists
Drama Critic Applauds...
"Much Ado" Very Successful
Kudos For Dramatists
This is a very successful show. Much Ado isn't an easy play for amateurs. Too much depends on the sophisticated word-tennis of Beatrice and Benedick, the sort of verbal volleyball popular in the Elizabethan "colleges of witcrackers". Nothing warms up humanly until well into Act 2, and there aren't even any clowns to lighten things till Act 3. It is a play with rather dry going, even for professionals, in the opening scenes.
Shakespeare uses "the mixture as before," some sighing lovers, some crackling scoffers, some comic commoners and an Italianate intrigue. The sighers are poetic, sentimental, instantly converted to love at first sight or suspicion at first hearing. The scoffers mock and jest and sparkle, and the low life fellows blunder amusingly about. In the end, the biters are bit, and Cupid wins the match. Shakespeare sets these airy aristocrats of his in various Lands of Comedy.—Illyria. Arden, Navarre, Verona—in this play it's Arragon—but Where does not matter because it's always Nowhere anyway, though England at the same time. The low born fellows are there to anchor down these plays to a very Elizabethan earth. Dogberry and Verges and their watch kept the Queen's peace in Stratford, or Westminster, or Bankside, and just bumbled naturally over into Arragon. Unlike some of Shakespeare's clowns, they are vital to the plot, their ineptitudes providing both the suspense and the solution.
To all these ingredients add a pinch of song and a little dancing, served up in the Concert Chamber.
The result is a very pleasant cake—pehaps puff pastry would be a better phrase—a little slow to rise at first, but light and tasty enough later.
Madame Dronke's production moves quickly and unobtrusively. Its simple and effective devices include different acting levels, and a rear stage that is church, garden, or city street. Some nippy pages change curtains and stools about. The Concert Chamber is not a Producer's Paradise, but Madame Dronke turned its cramped disadvantages to positive gain by rejecting scenic elaboration in favour of fluid movement, and by directing her appeal to the spectator's imagination.
The costumes deserve mention. They were easy to look at and easy to wear. Colours were chosen to point mood and character, and to blend in pleasing ways as the action re-combined the groupings. I liked especially, Claudio, Don Pedro, Benedick, and Dogberry. I was not very happy about the design for Beatrice, and was positively pained by Ursula's yellow.
And the acting? I could hear every word, and no-one shouted. It isn't always so in amateur drama. Not all the players were in full control of their intricate Elizabethan prose; those who had sentimental or rhetorical blank verse were luckier. (The wedding scene was lifted suddenly into power by the support the lines gave to Leonato. Claudio, the Friar). Hero was sometimes hard to follow, as site marred a clear and attractive voice with some strange un-English intonations.
Beatrice and Benedick did their beat with the somewhat tarnished wit of the opening scenes, and really made things move once the deceptions were set on foot. It was a delightful high comedy duet, with plenty of variation of pitch and pace. As Scoffer and Flouters, they exploited the fun value of a stage quarrel, while their sighing and sonnetting was equally good fun. Dulcie Gillespie-Needham's Beatrice was a real achievement Gavin Yates as Benedick and an excellent sparring partner. He managed his verbal fireworks with dash and polish, he moved well, and he at once had the audience on his side.
Patricia Adams as Hero offered Beatrice a contrast in manner, voice, gesture, and had in her own right attractive flashes of gaiety. The part is difficult, as so much of it has to be put across in silence.
The eavesdropping scenes were played for their full effect, and nicely balanced against each other. The male quartet did better than the three women, and brought off very well their "acting within acting". Grant McInnes made an unexpected success of Don Pedro, unexpected because it isn't a fat part; Don Pedro is just a standard Shakespearean string-pulling comedy Prince. Claudio, another part that doesn't offer very much opportunity, was similarly brought to an effective level by John Norton. He put plenty of passion into both loving and denouncing, which is chiefly what the plot requires of him.
Leonato, Antonio, had tough assignments, because old men's parts are not easy for young actors. Antonio was hampered by an unsuitable gown. Roger Harris as Leonato improved as the play matured. He hovered at first rather too long between being serious or comic, but was much better when he came out denfinitely at last as the heavy father. His beard was rather a handicap.
Don John Grimmer
Don John is a stagey villain, a bit of Machiavelli stalking about the comic stage. Should he be convincingly grim? I am inclined to think so, otherwise the tension of the play is slackened. John Treadwell did his best, but his voice and presence were too light. Probably he was miscast. Has the Drama Club no thin wiry devils, or, alternatively, no Bold Bad Men?
And so to those Inimitable Idiots, the native English constables. This is a play of Much Ado About Words, and the aristocrats have had a lot of fun. Why shouldn't the commoners join in? Like his betters, Dogberry has "turned orthography" and feasted at a "fantastical banquet of word". Unfortunately or fortunately his digestion isn't up to it; for good measure, in addition to his malapropisms we have the humour of his enormous complacency.
William Sheat served up a most acceptable version of this famous Ass. What's more, he resisted the temptation to overplay. This production was notable for restraint of this kind, for Us attention to the balance of the whole, for its high level teamwork. Dogberry, like Falstaff, can easily be "hammed", but he made no attempt to steal the show.
I won't detail the rest. Actors of minor parts came up to a higher standard than I have seen in some weightier amateur clubs. John Simpson's Borachio should perhaps be picked out. He looked nasty, he sounded nastier, and his costume was clearly wicked. Would he perhaps have made a good Don John?
Pages, maids, musicians, those who sang and those who blew, all added to the pleasure of a good night's entertainment. I heard the prompter only once, none of the scenery stuck or fell over, the play began on time, and ended, as a result of neat tailoring in just under two and a half hours. All as it should be. And a gay dance off-and-on gave us a final glimple of the players without the formality of a curtain call.
Congratulations to all.
Salients guest drama critic for "Much Ado" is Miss Joan Stevens M.A. (N.Z. and Oxon.), senior lecturer in English at VUC.