John Heffernan and Katherine Parkinson are perfectly cast and perfectly matched in Simon Godwin’s joyous Much Ado About Nothing at the National Theatre
“I do love nothing in the world so well as you”
Putting John Heffernan and Katherine Parkinson at the heart of any show is pretty much tapping into my ideal fan-casting but the real joy of Simon Godwin’s Much Ado About Nothing for the National Theatre is not just how damn good they are as Benedick and Beatrice but also how shimmeringly effective the rest of the production around them is as well. Transplanted to the chocolate-box-bright surroundings Hotel Messina on the Italian Riviera some time in the 1930s (and in true British fashion, no-one mentions the fascists), a hugely enjoyable interpretation of Shakespeare’s mid-career comedy unfolds in shamelessly crowd-pleasing fashion and much like its neighbour in the Olivier, it feels like an apposite summery treat with occasional hints of Aperol spritz-tinged notes of bittersweetness in there too.
The production doesn’t deal with the rise of the Partito Nazionale Fascista but confined within the hotel complex, it does find its own emotional depth. Heffernan and Parkinson play their warring would-be lovers as genuine oddballs, both somewhat ill at ease in the world around them which has the wonderful consequence of bringing real charge to their interactions. Parkinson makes hers a more melancholy Beatrice, breathing unexpected texture into her lines, and Heffernan’s Benedick feels more of an outsider than usual, wilfully at odds with any and everyone. Against them, the younger pairing of Claudio and Hero is a real joy in the hands of Eben Figueiredo and Ioanna Kimbrook who make both these characters much more interesting and impactful as they navigate the intensity of the passion that burns between them.
Godwin’s gentle interventions also pay dividends elsewhere. Making Antonio into Antonia, Leonato’s wife rather than brother, raises the emotional stakes from the off and Wendy Kweh seizes the opportunity with aplomb, her chemistry with Rufus Wright a joy and the mother’s fury she gets to bring is off the scale. And the Watch scenes, which can be tiresome, are leant real character by David Fynn, Nick Harris, Olivia Forrest and Al Coppola as a motley crew of blundering hotel security guards – Fynn and Forrest both really shining. Add in Anna Fleischle’s sumptuous set full of revolves and risers, Evie Gurney’s gorgeous costumes and the onstage Hotel Band led by Dario Rossetti-Bonell who lead numerous song and dance routines, and there’s just so much to enjoy in an unashamedly uncomplicated way – the gelato truck sequence is simply glorious.
But there’s detail here too should you look for it. The opening of the second act is astoundingly good, especially following the frivolity that has preceded. Just watch the anguish play over Parkinson’s face as Beatrice clocks what is about to happen way before anyone else, the menace with which David Judge’s Don John threatens Margaret into silence lest she sort things out with an explanation then and there, and the highly affecting release of emotion that comes as Benedick and Beatrice finally reveal their mutual feelings. Most any audience is primed to laugh ostentatiously at ‘Kill Claudio’ but it has never felt more inappropriate as here when there’s such devoted potency to the exchange. I sadly never got to witness Simon Russell Beale and Zoë Wanamaker but I like to imagine that these two are of a par. Dreamily good.