For MADC’s Much Ado About Nothing, at San Anton Gardens, Chris Gatt has opted for something new: the construction of a long and narrow stage thrust out from the handsome stairs leading up from the public gardens to the even handsomer terrace of the presidential palace itself, and the placing of the audience in three large sections, not terraced, around the stage.

Gatt’s setting of the play in 1945, following the victory of the Allies, is much more genial. The Governor, Leonato, hosts the officers of the victorious Navy in the palace. Better still, Dogberry and Verges, Shakespeare’s broadly comical parish constables, become egregious members of the Malta Police Force, wearing the huge wide shorts we oldies can remember our police constables wearing in days gone by.

Erin Stuart Palmier (Dogberry) and Joe Depasquale (Verges), a Laurel and Hardy couple in stature and size, guyed the two parts mercilessly, making the audience roar again and again. The price was the great diminution of Shakespeare’s satire of pompous minor officials, since the two are here not much more than clowns. This was not a high price to pay as the two, especially the smaller and ludicrously vain Dogberry, were mostly very funny indeed.

Gatt, I thought, made much more of a mistake in the scenes in which Benedick (Malcolm Galea) and Beatrice (Faye Paris) are respectively tricked into realising they greatly love each other. He made the two scenes extremely farcical, and the two characters take ludicrously impossible steps to bring themselves within hearing distance of those discussing them.

Benedick and Beatrice are characters of high comedy, two of Shakespeare’s finest, and do not deserve being made to perform antics more suitable to comics like Dogberry and Verges. I fear it is partly the limitations of Gatt’s stage that led to this directorial mistake.

This was a great pity as, in Galea, Gatt has found a brilliant Benedick who lifts the production high in all his scenes. He is a spirited, young officer much admired by his brother officer Claudio (Andre Agius) and respected by his Chief Officer Don Pedro (Stefan Cachia Zammit), whose famous verbal duels with Beatrice are triggered by his fear of shrewish and sharp-tongued women.

Galea’s face is a constantly changing picture and, like Beatrice, he hints early on from time to time that he finds the other very attractive. Galea is just as fine in serious parts as in comedy, and here he does very well indeed in scenes such as the one where he agrees, at Beatrice’s angry urging, to challenge his best friend Claudio to a duel.

In this great scene – in which he and Beatrice, both shocked by Claudio’s caddish repudiation of Hero at the altar, confess directly how much they love each other – Benedick convinces Beatrice of his great love when, after an initial hesitation, he agrees to do, despite his misgivings, what the spirited woman he loves so greatly desires. Galea’s acting is very subtle here, his face revealing every change in his thoughts. The entire scene was superb.

Use of props was minimal, and some of it ill-judged

Paris partners Galea very ably. In her early scenes with Benedick, perhaps she used too much vocal volume and stuck too much to one pitch. But in her scenes with Hero and the other ladies she revealed herself early on as an attractive and loving personality, while in the later scenes she showed a near-tragic strength, convincing both Benedick and the audience that she was just the wife Benedick really wanted.

Gatt’s production was notable for its effective use of 1940s popular music and dancing, and he ends it with the entire cast dancing as an ensemble and then in­dividually or in small groups. Music and dancing made it easy for today’s audiences to see how, at the end of the 16th century, people could have fun, especially if they belonged to the ruling class. Use of props was minimal, and some of it ill-judged, but on the whole, Gatt made us see how a play of this time can be effective using limited stage devices, apart from the sophisticated lighting.

Gatt has cut some of the text in order, for instance, to make the capture by the constables of the villains Conrad and Boracchio much tighter. More interestingly, he has made Leonato’s wife Imogen, who has no speeches in the text, into a character we cannot but notice, especially as performed by the admirable Polly March.

Gatt’s Imogen is given lines spoken in the text by other characters, and in the repudiation scene she is given the lines spoken in the text by Antonio, who has been omitted in this production. She makes up in her aggressive attitude towards Claudio and Don Pedro for the relatively restrained reaction of Leonato, a part that emerged in three dimensions as performed by Colin Willis, a delightfully urbane patrician who just cannot cope with the scandalous crisis created by his daughter Hero’s undeserved disgrace at her wedding.

Nicola Abela Garrett’s Hero, despite the relatively few lines the text gives her, was a lively and sexy, though never flirtatious, young woman for whom Claudio (a lightweight Andre Agius) justifiably falls and whom he much less justifiably believes to be wanton. She played the repudiation scene very sensitively. In a small part, that of Hero’s flirtatious and somewhat dim lady-in-waiting Margaret, Steffi Thake made her mark, especially in her scene with Benedick.

Cachia Zammit’s Don Pedro kept his stature as a high officer, even when he was having fun with his officers, but made us see his limitations when he strongly supported Claudio’s shocking repudiation of Hero. He did not even refrain from being discourteous to his host Leonato after that event.

Michael Mangion’s sour-faced Don John, notable in this production for his cigarette smoking, spoke his lines with much elegance and lucidity, and following his confession early on about his being a villain, he made it easy for us to take him at his word.

I have to mention Luke Farrugia, whose naval chaplain (a friar in the text) was not only beautifully spoken but also radiated common sense and good humour.

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