With sparkling chemistry between Lucy Phelps and Ralph Davis as sparring lovers Beatrice and Benedick, Lucy Bailey’s joyful production of Shakespeare’s play glows with the warmth of the Italian sun. Typical of London’s spring weather to let it down.
As the audience shivered under the open sky on opening night, the ensemble - one of the more harmonious the Globe has fielded recently - drank, danced, flirted and fought in elegant 1940s attire on Joanna Parker’s verdant set, to the strains of an all-female accordion quintet. Bailey balances absurdly funny, exaggerated physical comedy with a fine, finessing attention to the text. The result is delightful.
She sets the play in 1945, two years after Italy’s surrender, just as the war between occupying German and Allied forces came to an end. A strange place for a romantic comedy, but fitting for a story in which weary, cynical soldiers seek diversion in an all-female household: here, Shakespeare’s greybeards Leonato and Antonio become brisk Italian matriarchs, probably war widows.
The revelry that ensues suggests liberation after hardship, pheromones set free. Nadi Kemp-Sayfi’s charming ingenue Hero and Patrick Osborne’s saturnine Claudio fall fast for each other. Don Pedro (Ferdy Roberts), whom Benedick and Claudio serve, is a goaty old roue. No wonder hot jealousy is in the air.
Benedick’s misanthropy and sarcasm, his railing against marriage, looks here like a defense mechanism. In Davis’s boyish reading he’s an isolated character, uncomfortable with his fellows’ hijinks. With each successive production I see of this play it becomes clearer Benedick is far less intentionally funny than Beatrice.
Davis gives his barbs a glum, mulish air, while Phelps’s Beatrice has a gleefully savage and often lewd wit. She looks at Benedick like a fox looks at easy prey. Their scenes together are like a classic Hollywood screwball comedy where a fast-talking, glamorous broad runs rings around a bumbling stiff.
The show has the stylish air of old movies, too, the women in Veronica Lake hairdos, clinging gowns and wide-leg pants, the men rakish in natty suits or evening dress. Even the clowns led by George Fouracres’ hilarious, sublimely dim Dogberry look smart, got up as black-hatted Carabinieri. (In a nice democratic touch, the romantic male leads, Davis and Osborne, double as his slapstick-prone stooges.)
The pivotal scenes, in which B&B are tricked into loving each other by friends and family are almost cartoonish. Beatrice gets entangled in a volleyball net and is unceremoniously douched by a lawn sprinkler. Benedick is chased through concealing ivy by a vengefully pruning Antonia and ends up with a fir tree on his head. Countless times characters freeze in full view, in the hope it renders them unseen. Somehow it works.
But there’s attention paid to the seriousness of the text too. Hero’s rejection by the misled Claudio at the altar feels truly shocking. Beatrice telling Benedick to kill his friend seconds after they’ve professed love for each makes perfect sense as we see her mind flicker between grief, anger and affection.
This is a smart, stylish, grown-up staging, and the most purely pleasurable evening I’ve had at the Globe in yonks.
Shakespeare’s Globe, in rep to Sun 23 Oct: shakespearesglobe.com