The Progress Theatre’s latest production goes back to the 80sBy Sophie Herdman
November 25, 2009
The Progress Theatre’s latest production goes back to the 80s.
But, as Sophie Herdman finds out, Much Ado About Nothing suits those shoulder pads
How do you update a 16th century play? Simple – mix metallic puffball dresses, a tangy electro beat and the Falklands war and there you have it – Shakespeare in the 1980s, not the 1580s (well, give or take a few years). This alternative time zone has been embraced for The Progress Theatre’s latest production Much Ado About Nothing.
This modernisation is important, says director, Lesley McEwen.
“I’ve done Shakespeare before,” she says.
“I was involved in a production of Julius Caesar which was set in Roman times. Then I did A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merchant of Venice which were both set in the 20th century and it made them more accessible.
“I prefer Shakespeare when you’ve got no barrier, when you don’t have to set it in a time that people don’t relate to.”
Much Ado About Nothing, generally considered to be one of Shakespeare’s best plays, has a strong focus on the gender divide.
“Beatrice is socially inferior because she is a woman but, in her IQ, she is an equal,” explains Lesley. “Originally, I was going to set it in the 60s because that’s when I was at school and women’s liberation was a big issue, but then I had a re-think and updated it to the 80s – I think women’s emancipation is ongoing.
“Also, the premise that they’re coming back from war fits in with them returning from the Falklands.”
There must have been some temptation to bring it right up to date – not least to save the wardrobe department a task in sourcing those shoulder pads and puffball skirts. But Lesley had a very good reason not to; the dog and bone.
“We couldn’t set it now because you would need mobile phones and they are a bit of a plot killer in Shakespeare,” she explains.
“The 80s music fits well too. We’ve got classical and pop and one of the cast has set an original piece of music which is very 80s.”
As for those tricky costumes, Helen Coleman has scoured eBay, military uniform specialists and even delved into old wardrobes to help the cast dress for the occasion.
Lesley chose to direct Much Ado About Nothing because it was “next on my list to do”. But she also has a long-standing admiration for the original romcom.
“I did it at school,” she recalls. “It’s a great comedy but also has a serious side. It has relationships, integrity and honour.”
Many of those involved in The Progress Theatre’s work are volunteers and, despite many of the cast having to fit rehearsals in between full-time jobs, to date all has run smoothly as they prepare for curtain up tomorrow night.
“We are really lucky with the cast, they are fantastic. Everything has worked really well because everyone is so passionate,” Lesley explains.
“I have worked with some of the people before but it’s a big cast.
“The joy of working with Progress is you have professional trained actors working alongside those who have never acted before – and I would defy you to tell the difference.
“It is a co-operative piece of work and much is down to the actors. The atmosphere at the theatre means that we are able to do complex character studies and physical work, and explore the character.
“The actors often go away, go through the ideas and then bring them back and say ‘we could do this’.
“I’m an actor myself, so I don’t want to be a director who tells people what to do. I want them to bring their own ideas.
“Once we have done the last rehearsal, it’s not mine anymore.”
Lesley, who directed The Merchant of Venice for the Summer Abbey Ruins in 2003, discovered her love for directing when her last child left home 12 years ago.
“I thought I had to find something to take my mind off it,” she says.
So Lesley ending up doing an MA that was jointly taught at RADA and King’s College.
“When we got there everyone had to say what they were interested in – directing or acting. I said acting was what I wanted to do but I found the directing so fascinating, there is so much you can do.”
She then taught drama after the MA and directed a couple of things at the school she was then teaching at. “I thought, I can do this, I love it so much.”
Behind every great director, is a great assistant. For Much Ado, Natasha Hall, a sixth form student at Kendrick, fills this role.
“She directed me in a short piece in January so I knew she was good at directing adults,” Lesley explains. “She is similar to me, she is visual, she watches what is going on and develops ideas.”
Much Ado is a Sicilian-set romcom that promises to blend farce with marriage, masked balls and mistaken identities. Although originally written for the early 17th century, this comedy of manners is just as relevant to us today, although we can live without those shoulder pads.
Much Ado About Nothing runs from tomorrow until Saturday, December 5. Tickets are available from the Reading Arts box office on (0118) 960 6060 or www.readingarts.com.