Much Ado About Nothing 1998

Previous Performances
This production ... bubbles over with generosity, theatricality and witThe Observer
Let me be quite clear: Cheek by Jowl's Much Ado About Nothing is wonderful. Not only is it constantly surprising and extraordinarily moving, it is full of wonder... You simply feel as if you drink in the play's living, breathing passion.The Independent

World premiere 12 February 1998 Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham
London run from 6 June 1998 for 60 performances, Playhouse Theatre

Run time 3hrs 40mins including two 15min interval

Co-produced by Théâtre National de Bretagne and Le Maillon Théâtre de Strasbourg

Find out more by visiting the entry for this production in our archive

In order of speaking

Stephen ManganDon Pedro
Paul GoodwinDon Juan
Bohdan PorajClaudio
Matthew MacfadyenBenedick
Andrew PriceBalthasar / Friar Francis / First Watchman
Justin SalingerBorachio
Mark LaceyConrad
Riz AbbasiMessenger / Second Watchman
Raad RawiLeonato
Ann FirbankUrsula
Sarita ChoudhuryHero
Saskia ReevesBeatrice
Zoe AldrichMargaret / Sexton
Derek HutchinsonDogberry
Sam BeazleyVerges

DirectorDeclan Donnellan
DesignerNick Ormerod
LightingJudith Greenwood
MovementJane Gibson
MusicPaddy Cunneen


Cheek by Jowl's farewell production touches down after an international tour that has had foreign critics swooning with admiration. You can see why. This Much Ado displays many of the qualities that have made the company's co founders, director Declan Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod, so revered over the past 17 years. The staging is lucid and fluid , with every member of the ensemble gainfully employed in the task of telling the sex war comedy in a manner that is choreographed without being showy, as tightly bound as a corset and yet still pulsating with life.

There is no set to speak of, just an array of cream-coloured banners descending from on high and on to which leafy coloured light is projected. The sense of place, turn of the century England, is conveyed mainly through the characters. The soldiers, with their pristine bottle green uniforms, waxed short back and sides and daft moustaches look like out-sized escapees from a Victorian children's nursery. Their behaviour, however, is more redolent of boarding school types at a garden party: braying, sniggering and point-scoring, they freeze in group portraits of the absurd, latently homosexual horseplay. The women, in nondescript white skirts and blouses, share the same clipped enunciation, but they're from a different planet as far as the men are concerned. When Bohdan Poraj's clueless Claudio is given Hero's hand in marriage, he rushes not into her arms but into those of Don Pedro (Stephen Mangan) the friend who wooed her on his behalf.

The point is sufficiently well made that this is a gender-polarised world which Benedick, our sworn bachelor hero, and Beatrice, the sworn spinster with whom he spars, are wise to break from. We watch in delight as Matthew Macfadyen's superb Benedick and Saskia Reeves' schoolmarmish Beatrice are tricked into love via hilarious eavesdropping scenes and arrive at weepy eyed affection. As if we didn't know how it would end, Cheek by Jowl are bowing out on a high. Dominic Cavendish, Time Out. 10 June 1998
Let me be quite clear: Cheek by Jowl's Much Ado About Nothing is wonderful. Not only is it constantly surprising and extraordinarily moving, it is full of wonder.

Most productions manage some of the multiple plots at the expense of others. If you take Beatrice and Benedick to be the central relationship then the play tends to collapse when trying to tie together all the other plots around it. But by widening the focus to all the men's behaviour towards women in times of war, Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod reveal the play to be as tightly laced as Hero's wedding corset.

Even Kenneth Branagh's Shakespeare as Heals Catalogue film recognised that the action opens with the men returning from war, but after a flurry of hair washing the women's reaction seemed restricted to an appreciation of well filled uniforms. Here they act in relation to men whose behaviour is utterly dictated by military codes. Instead of the predictable cute-meet Beatrice and Benedick's protracted pairing off is the result of male public school fear and disdain of women. When Benedick is fooled into loving Beatrice, Matthew Macfadyen's literal fall from upright behaviour is gloriously funny.

Military men spend years in their own company, which brings suggestions of homosexuality. This not only explains Don Pedro's usually mysterious sadness, it also beefs up the awkwardness surrounding Claudio's lack of interest in his own marriage. Donnellan uses Don Pedro's announcement of Claudio's betrothal to illuminate this. Upon hearing the news, Claudio, who has walked huffily off into the auditorium, leaps back on stage to hug not his wealthy bride to be, but his best friend.

Donnellan uses his hallmark style of continuous action to mirror the plots and charge up the conflict between the private and public business of love with scenes acted in front of the entire company. Much of the first half is staged as a ball at which Saskia Reeves' mercurial Beatrice becomes deliciously drunk. Meanwhile, the cast pair off and regroup around her, smartly underlining the plot's crucial overheard intimacies.

This is one of those rare occasions that make you understand why people still present Shakespeare. It has nothing to do with making you 'appreciate' his cultural greatness, you simply feel as if you drink in the play's living, breathing passion. The play marks the end, for the foreseeable future, of Cheek by Jowl. All the more reason to book for this resplendent, glowing swansong. David Benedict, The Independent. 11 June 1998