Third round for Pub Shakespeare

Third time turned out to be indeed a charm for the already-charming Shakespeare at the Pub show by WhatsTheirNames Theatre, who this year brought the Bard’s beloved romantic comedy Much Ado About Nothing to Oliver Reed’s resting place

Clockwise from left: Joseph Zammit, Nathan Brimmer, Gianni Selvaggi, Giulia Xuereb and Tina Rizzo
Clockwise from left: Joseph Zammit, Nathan Brimmer, Gianni Selvaggi, Giulia Xuereb and Tina Rizzo

Enough has already been written by those who have been won over by WhatsTheirNames Theatre’s take on the William Shakespeare’s oeuvre so I’ll just state it right off the bat: the modest theatre troupe have outdone themselves this time.

In what feels like a refreshing jolt of quality fringe theatre in at ‘Capital of Culture’ atmosphere replete with both excessive hype and unwelcome ugliness, the Philip Leone-Ganado-directed play turned out to be a winning night out. Roughly the same could be said of their previous two outings – Two Gentlemen of Verona the first time around, Twelfth Night last year – but I’d submit that something has changed, for the better, in the air with this edition.

Watching the show last Wednesday, I couldn’t help but think that the troupe has internalised the dynamics of their deliberately modest staging techniques fully and in earnest. Their innovative-for-Malta decision to go for a stripped-down approach to Shakespeare’s comedies and stage them at the decidedly intimate venue of The Pub in Valletta certainly gave the whole project an automatic whiff of excitement. But as they dove into Much Ado About Nothing, they were at their most relaxed yet, clearly not intimidated by the source material and playing into the little quirks and adjustments required by the scrunched-down approach with verve and confidence.

As ever, though, cleaving as close as possible to the source material despite outward innovations pays off, and ‘Much Ado’ is arguably one of the more compact plays in the pantheon of Shakespeare’s comedies, making it easier on the small troupe to not only present with the requisite mix of freshness and rigour – with each of them playing double roles all the while.

As such, they successfully transpose the rarefied atmosphere of Renaissance-era Messina to Oliver Reed’s final resting place in Archbishop Street, where the court of governor Leonato (Philip Leone-Ganado) becomes a battleground of wits and passions, with two very distinct couples emerging from the fray. In one corner we have returning war hero Claudio (Gianni Selvaggi) and Leonato’s daughter Hero (Giulia Xuereb), smitten with each other and eager to be wed – a proposition initially welcomed by Leonato and Claudio’s friend and battle-companion Don Pedro (Nathan Brimmer). But Leonato’s jealous bastard-brother Don John (Joseph Zammit), pounces on this opportunity to satisfy a long-seething revenge on his beloved and noble kin, by getting his henchmen Borachio (Xuereb) and Conrade (Tina Rizzo) to spoil the upcoming nuptials by spreading malicious rumours about the would-be bride.

In the other corner are perennial confirmed bachelors Benedick (Zammit) and Beatrice (Rizzo); sharp wits who will have no truck with the foibles of love and who have sworn they will never marry. It’s a bubble waiting to be burst, and Don Pedro and Claudio resolve to their own spot of contriving – planting a seed in both Benedick and Beatrice’s minds that they fancy each other after all, despite the “merry war” of caustic barbs and put-downs that had previously characterised their exchanges.

Giulia Xuereb and Tina Rizzo
Giulia Xuereb and Tina Rizzo

Leone-Ganado, who directed all ‘Shakespeare at the Pub’ shows thus far – though he’ll also be tackling the traditionally more sober ‘Summer Shakespeare’ at San Anton this year, helming As You Like It this July – has stressed the importance of really embodying a Shakespeare text as one attempts to produce it, and this commitment is rewarded substantially with this production. The perfect symmetry that characterises the play – one contrivance good-natured, the other evil – and the build-ups to its crucial payoffs are understood and executed with gusto by the troupe. Sure, there are fun interludes and interaction with the very-much-nearby audience, which have by now become an established part of the WhatstheirNames Shakespeare ‘brand’. A particularly enthusiastic dance-off to the Backstreet Boys’ late-90s hit ‘Backstreet’s Back’ ended with a literal bang – or rather, crash – on Wednesday night, climaxing with the destruction of a light fixture to raucous, and not entirely unwelcome, laughter... it would be rock ‘n roll if it weren’t Backstreet Boys.

But there’s a lot more to it than these fun little add-ons, and through an alchemy of sensitive direction and more-than-capable performers, the play’s many emotional ups-and-downs and linguistic ping-pong landed with perfect grace. Brimmer and Leone-Ganado are all but settled in their roles as either authority figures, buffons or genial noblemen – and there’s nothing wrong with that (whispers of a formula shake-up are in the air anyway, and here’s hoping the troupe deliver on this next year).

But as is to be expected – or at least, as should be expected from any take on ‘Much Ado’ – it’s Zammit and Rizzo who get to shine brightest in this show. We are invited to delight in their self-assured folly as they deny themselves the basic pleasures of matrimony, and eagerly await the moment when these razor-sharp wits are finally felled on their own egos and they are allowed to experience true joy.