Much Ado About Nothing – Bar’d Work bring Shakespear back home. (Theatre Review)

Shakesbeer: Much Ado About Nothing

Bar’d Work

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Some of the clever folk from the Pop-up Globe, fresh from knowing their lines and roles so well, have banded together to keep the magic alive by transplanting Shakespeare into the pubs of Sydney, where (it can easily be argued) they belong. The tremendous success of the Pop-up Globe taught us a great deal about the relationship between Shakespeare and his audience, much of which seems to have been lost to gentrification (bourgeois appropriation?) over time. Like many of the pubs in Sydney which have also fallen victim to beautification, Shakespeare has a remarkably ability to gift a joyful and boisterous night out when we don’t all get too on ourselves about him. However, it takes a particular kind of training to understand how to open Shakespeare up and make all this available. Leave it to Chris-Huntly-Turner and James Haxby to form the company Bar’d Work. B’ard Work is dedicated to producing ‘shakesbeer’ for casual consumption along with your beer and nuts on any particular given night of the week. Set inside Sydney’s most iconic bars, the relationship between Shakespeare and us local folk is considerably improved by this professional and very clever adaptive performance.

They’ve just started this run with a thoroughly modern retelling of Much Ado About Nothing, that play set in the close-knit community of Messina, where everyone deceives everyone else and the choice between survival and death is how one relates to cheating and gossip. Is there a better play to perform in the local pub? In Messina everyone wants to know everyone else’s business, as reflected in the entanglement of the three major plot lines (Hero-Claudio love story, bamboozlement of Benedick and Beatrice and Don John’s villainy) just as it is inside a locals-loving bar. Much Ado About Nothing dramatizes two different ways of falling in love and therefore Shakespeare questions the idea that if society if based on deceit, is all romance futile? Surely the true love of a certain couple and the nature of love itself is one of the topics most discussed in bars, albeit in a variety of formats? The title Much Ado About Nothing (Much ado about noting – get it?) is literally trivial while representing the ideas of overhearing, spying, trickery and their relationship to love. One starts to wonder why a bar wasn’t the natural setting for the play all along.

And therein lies the cleverness of this production. With a troupe who know the play so well they can recite it in their sleep, drinking and riffing of the audience and their delight, you have all the making for Shakespeare as you have never seen it before. The particular joy of Much Ado About Nothing stems from the irony that the difficulties of the characters throughout the play, while often caused by the deception of others, regularly stem from self-deception or their own human fallibility. “Relatable” is not a word a pub dweller might equate with Shakespeare but this production reveals otherwise. The relationships between text and audience is expanded by the superb cast to include transformations of characters such as Dogberry (Chelsea Zeller) and Verges (Asalemo Tofete) into RSA inspectors while Balthasar (Rory O’Keeffe) sings contemporary ditties which encourage the audience to clap and dance. Frivolity and joy are high, drinks flow fast and free (this night is excellent for the host pub) and the audience win jugs of beer if they can answer questions like “Name anything that has happened so far” at interval.

None of this excellent production would be possible if the performances were not so spot on and in such command of the text. Company directors Chris Huntly-Turner and James Haxby are all over their Shakespeare experience, entirely professional and comfortable in a pub setting. Along with their producer Natalie Lines, they form a competent troupe that enlist the pub aesthetic intuitively. For this particular production they have formed an engaged, joyful cast familiar and comfortable with the pub setting. Stand outs include Chelsea Zeller conjuring Dogberry as an RSA inspector and Asalemo Tofete in a variety of roles that successfully bring the house down every time. Rory O’Keefe is strong also, particularly when he picks up his guitar. Brendan Miles and Martin Everett emphasise the fun in their semiserious roles and Shannon Ryan makes for a gorgeous, enigmatic Beatrice.

Bar’d Work’s evocation of Much Ado About Nothing isn’t just a fun night in the pub. The company make an important contribution to our knowledge of Shakespeare, bringing the writer alive in a way that might be absent from straight theatre and certainly is in film. There can be no right or wrong way to ‘do’ Shakespeare, but the astounding ability of this writer to move from the highest, most prestigious stage to the warm common fellowship of the ‘travelling player’ who might perform in the local pub is something only a variety of Shakespearean productions can reveal, and becomes essential to a closer appreciation of the most venerated writer in the English language. Seeing Bar’d Work is essential to this understanding, not to mention a joyful and engaging night out. Make sure you get to one of their productions and bring a bunch of friends.

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