The week in theatre: Much Ado About Nothing; Kiss Me, Kate – review

<span>‘Tremendous verbal velocity and scampering physicality’: Amalia Vitale, centre, as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing at Shakespeare’s Globe.</span><span>Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Observer</span>
‘Tremendous verbal velocity and scampering physicality’: Amalia Vitale, centre, as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing at Shakespeare’s Globe.Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Observer

What is the difference between a wit and a shrew? Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Kate are equally vivacious, equally on fire against marriage. Yet one is rewarded with a chap who matches her high spirits; the other is doomed to be quelled by a tyrant.

I would not have guessed that this summer’s sellout at the Globe would be Much Ado About Nothing. Yet the play does have an affinity with this space. Two years ago, Lucy Bailey’s war-haunted production – feminist and alert to fascism – rocked the theatre. Now, Sean Holmes’s staging constantly pulls quick, sometimes unexpected reactions from the audience (1,570, 700 of them standing): satisfied sighs when Beatrice and Benedick finally kiss; urgings-on for Beatrice to eat Claudio’s heart “in the marketplace”.

Ekow Quartey and Amalia Vitale fly, batting complicated disputes between them like shuttlecocks

The essential dynamic is the fizz and flutter between the love-hate couple. Ekow Quartey and Amalia Vitale fly, batting complicated disputes between them like shuttlecocks. Vitale has tremendous verbal velocity and scampering physicality (more applause for her heaving herself from the pit to wriggle across the stage); plenty of fury but no sourness. Quartey is relaxed and beautifully buoyant: he transmits a feeling of wanting to expand into love.

The possibility of pleasure is everywhere. From the musicians who stroll around like a travelling troupe. From the sunbursts of colour in Grace Smart’s set and the fabric extravaganzas of her costumes: embroidered bodices, beribboned sleeves, multi-petticoated gowns. There is thematic thought behind the brightness. Orange weaves through the evening: fruits gleam on boughs radiant as Belisha beacons – hiding among them, Quartey disguises his arm as a branch – and are heaped in baskets (a groundling is given a sample). The juiciness is reflected in a flame-coloured gown and the chiffon veils that serve as flimsy disguises in one of Shakespeare’s daft, not-really-dead scenes. All of which picks up on threads in the dialogue. The perjured Hero (lovely debut from Lydia Fleming) is described as a “rotten orange”. Well, this is, after all, the jam-makers play: who but they will thrill to the pun in “civil as an orange”?

The startling shift of tone in the second half, which slides into death and distrust, is eased by Adam Wadsworth, who makes Claudio such an emotional toddler – falling in love as if he had just taken a fancy to an ice-cream – that his sudden loss of belief in his future wife is completely convincing. Holmes does not supply all the plangent touches of Bailey’s production, which made a strong case for this being a women’s play. Nevertheless, I felt my seating in a Globe“gentlemen’s box” was a cheeky paradox.

From 26 June, the Globe will stage The Taming of the Shrew. It is Shakespeare’s least appealing play, not only because of its subject matter but because it is so meagrely written: only one ringing speech – which is about being submissive. Cole Porter’s 1948 musical Kiss Me, Kate has the horrible shrew as its kernel: a theatre company, starring a couple whose lives echo those of Shakespeare’s warring pair, are rehearsing the play. Yet it pulls glory from crabbedness, with its soaring, drumming numbers and its unforgettable (“heinous/Coriolanus”) rhymes. For once, the book – by Sam and Bella Spewack (written when they were themselves a quarrelling couple) – lives up to the score.

Bartlett Sher’s production is not a revelation but it hits high notes. The action revolves – literally in Michael Yeargan’s backstage/onstage design – around Adrian Dunbar, who is new to musicals, and Stephanie J Block, best know on Broadway. She brings a soaring voice and subtle expression (listen to the pause and the diminishment in “So in love with you – am I”); he is nicely sardonic, cleverly controlling. There is, though, less spark between them than there is between Hammed Animashaun and Nigel Lindsay as the gangsters (posing as producers) who put across Brush Up Your Shakespeare with panache, and audience participation.

Georgina Onuorah is a gorgeous Bianca, and Jack Butterworth and Charlie Stemp lead the ensemble in a number that alone provides a reason for buying a ticket. Too Darn Hot swells from sultry through leapingly fiery to flat-out embers: Anthony Van Laast’s choreography seems to turn the entire cast into flames.

Still, the nastiness of Shakespeare’s play is a taint and not dissolved as here by making his scenes pantomimic rather than disturbing. Sher has a reputation for being confrontational with classic material (To Kill a Mockingbird, My Fair Lady) but he is not so much a remaker as a tweaker. He makes some sharp and dainty adjustments: Petruchio kneels to his wife; Cantiamo D’amore gets a nicely sceptical rendering. Nonetheless, you don’t have to be much of a feminist to recoil from that kernel: the crushing of someone because she does not have a penis.

Star ratings (out of five)
Much Ado About Nothing
★★★★
Kiss Me, Kate ★★★