“If there was ever a play that questions gender… this is it.”
In this Q&A, Director Michael Oakley discusses his upcoming production of Much Ado About Nothing, which is this year’s Playing Shakespeare 2018 with Deutsche Bank – our annual performances for schools, families and those new to Shakespeare.
The first ever Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank production was Much Ado About Nothing and that was your first professional gig, wasn’t it?
Yes, I was Assistant Director on it. It’s a play that means an awful lot to me. I remember the response from the students was incredibly raw and truthful. It was thrilling.
How are you going about preparing for this production?
The Globe space is different from anywhere else and it marries well with this play because the audience are sometimes put in a position where they are more in the know than the characters on stage. In order for that to work to its best advantage and create tension in the scenes, you have to have a strong relationship with your audience in the set up. The Globe is the ideal place for this interaction to be fully realised as it creates such a unique experience between actor and audience.
These performances last around an hour and a half. What has been your approach to cutting the text?
The play is easier to cut than others – there’s an Elizabethan rule that Beatrice and Benedick rather brilliantly embody, where you never give just one example, you always give four or five to illustrate your point. When you take some of that away, the story becomes much more direct.
In a play about love, why do you think there’s so much prose?
It’s often said that verse exists only when the characters are telling the truth, but in the one scene that’s entirely in verse in this play, the characters are lying! I think there’s a sense in this play that the characters don’t always know how to cope with their feelings and that might be why there’s more prose. This gives more danger to the language because you don’t know when people are telling the truth and sometimes they don’t know when they’re telling the truth themselves – there’s constant misinterpretation and deceit. The only time Beatrice ever speaks in verse is this rather beautiful moment where she’s heard a few home truths and she asks, ‘What fire is in mine ears? Can this be true?’ and she’s devastated about that, and that’s so illuminating and wonderful.
This use of language as a sort of protective armour is why I feel this is such a good play for young people. We self-preserve and self-project the image that we want other people to see. This focus on how you are perceived by your peers and how they respond to you is an important theme for the characters in this play. It’s only when the characters realise that actually telling the truth, and that being open with each other is the better way to live – that they grow up and move on.
I think that’s what Shakespeare always does in his plays, especially in the comedies, he offers his characters’ mistakes as examples and invites us to respond to them and recognise ourselves in them.
I know you’re particularly interested in the Hero and Claudio relationship…
The main narrative of the text is the appalling deceit of Hero by Claudio which has the most dreadful consequences for everyone. I think it’s important that we build up to that moment and then look at the effects of it. Hero becomes a very different character when she’s not with her father – she becomes much more in command. In some scenes, she’s as witty and vivacious as Beatrice, but she has a father who she has to please.
Claudio undertakes one of the biggest emotional shifts in the play, and I’d argue, one of the biggest emotional shifts in the whole canon. In The Winter’s Tale, Leontes (who’s like Claudio ten years down the line) talks about his ‘re-creation.’ He recognises the need to see things differently after the crisis he’s faced and I think Claudio has to do that too.
For me, one of the most telling lines in the whole play is when Claudio finds out Hero isn’t dead and says, ‘Sweet Hero, now thy image doth appear in the rare semblance that I lov’d it first.’ He still hasn’t grown up and it’s not until he sees her, and not his image of her, that he can change.
How has the time that we live in and this particular audience influenced your work on the play?
We’re talking more about gender now and if there was ever a play that questions gender – this is it. The world of social media makes us much more aware of what people think and say about us now too. On Instagram we select the image we want to project of ourselves for the world to see.
And it’s a world where reputations can be ruined in a moment…
Absolutely. Look at Snapchat and the problems there are in schools when people post comments about images which can be devastating and destructive. Reputation, honour and our sense of self-worth and how they are linked to our image is what this play questions and explores. Part of my job is to extract the thematic strands that make it more immediate and direct for a younger audience today. Some of those strands have gained an urgency today that they didn’t have ten years ago.
Tell us about your ideas for how music will feature.
Music is really important in this play. It’s referred to in the text so many times. The last line, ‘Strike up, pipers,’ is key and the two songs in the play are very important musical moments. The first, ‘Sigh no more, ladies’, could be the catchphrase of the whole play. The music at the tomb when Claudio goes through his ‘reformation’ should be very emotive and visceral. Shakespeare knows that sometimes words aren’t enough and that music can move us in a different way.
What questions are you hoping the audience will take away from this production?
Much Ado About Nothing is always called a comedy and I think it’s wonderfully funny but it also very nearly becomes a tragedy. In the final scene, the play forgives Claudio, but whether as an audience member we go for it or not is something I would love everyone to walk out asking themselves. Hero forgives Claudio, could I? Shakespeare often presents difficult questions and doesn’t always make it an easy ride for his audience.
Pictured: Tom Davey, Olly Fox, Charlyne Francis. Tyler Fayose, Emilio Doorgasingh, Rachel Winters, Etta Murfitt, Michael Oakley, Charlotte Mills & Fiona Hampton in rehearsals. Photography: Cesare de Giglio.