Fun in the garden, courtesy of Bill | Much Ado About Nothing

Despite its imperfections, MADC’s take on William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing made for an enjoyable evening out at San Anton Gardens.

No fools for love: Faye Paris and Malcolm Galea as Shakespeare’s warring lovers-to-be Beatrice and Benedick. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi.
No fools for love: Faye Paris and Malcolm Galea as Shakespeare’s warring lovers-to-be Beatrice and Benedick. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi.

Up until the figurative curtain came up on this year's edition of MADC's 'Shakespeare in San Anton' offering, I couldn't shake off the feeling that its leads were severely miscast.

Taking on the roles of the ultimate 'meet-cute' couple - they hated, then loved each other long before Harry met Sally - Malcolm Galea and Faye Paris were charged with embodying Benedick and Beatrice: two noble hangers-on at the Messina court where Much Ado About Nothing is set. Social rivals in every other way, they have but one thing in common - their refusal to fall in love.

The roles by their very nature require robust, outwardly strong personalities that dominate the stage and regale the audience with an audacious presentation of their 'merry war'. While it's clearly an actor's job to assume different personality types and adapt to different characters, Galea and Paris somehow felt too skinny and slight to properly embody Shakespeare's obstinate bachelors.

But live performance has a way of surprising you. And given how we were just privy to a touring production of the Globe Theatre's Taming of the Shrew - a similarly rambunctious play from the Bard's comedy closet - it's heartening that the Chris Gatt-directed attempt (updating the setting to post-WWII) doesn't jar in quality.

Borrowing perhaps a bit too heavily from the recent David Tennant-Catherine Tate West End version of 'Much Ado' (and that's not even mentioning Galea's own resemblance to the former Doctor Who), the set and production design blended perfectly with the beloved and evocative surroundings, and received substantial help from high-quality costumes (thank God for that, too - few things grate more than stylish period gear done badly).

I don't start with a description of the play's superficial make-up to be backhandedly complimentary, or coy. If we are to take MADC's annual Shakespeare outing as being chiefly concerned with providing a fun night out, the frills and fluff are an important part of this package.

It's a shame, then, that Gatt doesn't succeed in maintaining a steady tempo for the play from start to finish, with the first act in particular operating in fits and starts rather than gliding along. There could be a number of reasons for this: lack of proper rehearsal, a mixed coterie of local talent (admittedly, a large ensemble is difficult to assemble, given Malta's limited pool of thesps)... but I'm inclined to think it's down to pressure of a different kind.

With Shakespere, you either embrace his somewhat problematic - and occasionally archaic - verbal dexterity all the way, or you don't. Regrettably, an insistence on pitching the entire thing as a broad farce - as if in a panic that the audience will doze off in a narcoleptic daze the very moment things get a little quieter - works to the play's detriment. Relaxed, rather than rushed, should be the watchword.

These problems are luckily resolved come the second act, thankfully, and our two leads - curiously, Benedick and Beatrice are actually peripheral to the central plot - prove to in fact be more than ample masters of ceremonies. Galea in particular triumphs: he's a seasoned comedian who has no qualms playing Benedick as a bit of a shit, but a loveable one at that. Paris, on the other hand, seems to have needed the play to temporarily shift into a more dramatic gear to get comfortable with her character. But when she does, it's a joy to see her continue to spar with, then fall for, Galea's Benedick.

Less convincing was Michael Mangion's take on the already two-dimensional villain of the piece, Don John. Granted, Shakespeare didn't give him all that much to chew on - the character was played by Keanu Reeves in the early-90s film version, which tells you all you need to know, really - but a flat character isn't helped by flat delivery, and Mangion loses points for playing it safe throughout.

In fact, boldness is rewarded. This is particularly true of the play's obvious 'comic relief' characters, 'Messina Police Force' officers Dogberry (Erin Stuart Palmier) and Verges (Joe Depasquale) who unmask Don John's villainous plan despite their bumbling investigative methods. Playing the characters in a rough Maltese accent throughout may have been a bit of a too-crude sop to the aforementioned tendency to pander to the lowest common denominator possible - and it certainly feels that way in the first act - but come the second half, Palmier's hearty and hilarious "I am an ass!" speech vindicated the approach. 

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