In 1598, Merton College fellow, Thomas Bodley, wrote to Oxford’s vice-chancellor expressing his intention to support the development of the University library. That autumn, William Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing was (according to my Wordsworth Classics Edition) first performed. As work began on the Old Schools Quadrangle in 1613, the earliest documented performances of the play took place as part of the festivities preceding the marriage of Princess Elizabeth Stuart.
So far, so Wikipedia, but the point I think I’m making is this: if ever there were appropriate surroundings for (to quote Blackadder) ‘wearing stupid tights and saying things like “What ho, my lord!” and “Oh look, here comes Othello, talking total crap as usual,’ then seventeenth-century quadrangles in the shade of ancient libraries were surely them. But this is only part of the reason that director Max Gill’s decision to bring Shakespeare’s Messina into the Mafioso surroundings of 1950s Sicily, replacing starched ruffs and doublets with tailored suits and fedoras, is puzzling.
Yes, these old plays are given new life by continual re-imagination and reinterpretation. And granted, this is not just the Oxford University Dramatic Society end-of-term play – a quaint spectacle for the summer tourist crowd – but the first leg in an international tour that will take in London and Tokyo before returning for a four-night run in Guildford in September. But it is not just the location with which the mafia aesthetic clashes. While the costumes, stage and performers are delightfully set to evoke familiarly thrilling tropes of fifties glamour and the dark romance of Europe’s most beloved organised crime syndicate (and it really does look beautiful), the effect is somewhat offset by a house style of delivery more RADA than Cosa Nostra. While in general not detracting from the play itself, the occasional shaddapayaface hand gestures and self-conscious gun-toting do distract from an otherwise accomplished production, while a choreographed masked-ball routine dances dangerously close to West Side Story territory, so that what ostentatiously announces itself as an ‘interpretation,’ ends up looking more like a fancy-dress theme.
Yet, superficial as such a reading might be, these are essentially superficial concerns. As one might expect from a cast formed of the cream of Oxford’s drama circuit, individual performances are superb. There are no disappointments among the fourteen-strong ensemble, with only occasional veering towards the kind of look-how-acting-I-am one-upmanship you might expect in such a constellation of elite thesps. Jordan Waller does a wonderfully assured job of putting the dick in Shakespeare’s self-satisfied Benedick, admirably matched by Ruby Thomas’s haughty Beatrice. In similar form, Barnaby White suitably lives up to his character’s byname as Don John (‘the bastard’), with a detached but powerful stage presence, nicely balanced by the excitable frolicking of Matt Gavan as his half-brother Don Pedro. The neat double act of Rhys Bevan and Andrew McCormack as the inept night-watchmen, Dogberry and Verges, succeeds in competing with the indefatigable fucking of the Bodleian’s pigeons for laugh-out-loud comedy.
In the Old Schools Quadrangle, we are presented with a play that in many ways rejects the Old School, but which at the same time retains a rather traditional – even quintessential – feel, and what might have been an unadulterated triumph is inhibited by the uneasy marriage of old and not-so-old. In the most Oxford of locations, an atmospheric setting, elegant design, and an excellent cast, showing both maturity and abundant promise (which you feel sure in many cases will be professionally fulfilled), combine to produce a show that is well worth seeing, yet one that fails to be anything more than the sum of its parts. Good parts, nonetheless.