Much Ado About Nothing marks a welcome return to innovation and inspiration at the Globe



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Verdant, visually appealing and very funny, does Lucy Bailey’s production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing mark a return to the good old days for the Globe?

The production opens the summer season, finally back at full capacity. More than that, defined by its attention to detail, it balances directorial innovation with actorly inspiration, avoiding the ideological rampancy of some recent shows here.

I may be speaking too soon – we’re poised to see a Julius Caesar ‘brought home’ with ‘startlingly new relevance’. But, aside from the ushers, who monitor groundling behaviour in the now thronging yard with the zealousness of APR wardens looking for chinks of light from black-out curtains, the emphasis is on throwing off our cares after a difficult period.

This high comedy is often ‘relocated’ to create a sense of surprise and social flux, and Bailey duly sets the action in northern Italy, circa April 1945, days before the war-ravaged country’s final liberation by the Allies. There’s not much ado about all that. But it does mean the returning soldiers at the start of Act 1 are dirty-faced anti-fascist partisans, wearily emerging through the audience – with the odd bandaged head, slung rifles, even a motorcycle.

They’re met by a household on tenterhooks, presided over by Katy Stephens’s ‘Leonata’ (not the usual, male governor of Messina, Leonato). The returnees lustily sing a round of the folk song that became a resistance anthem, Bella Ciao – an Italian solidarity-stirrer too in the early days of the pandemic. Delightful accordion-music, mainly female-played, fills the air; at times, it’s squeezeboxes galore.

Shakespeare’s tragicomic observation – all the same – is that after war, peace doesn’t flow so easily. The battle of the sexes continues apace, Lucy Phelps excelling as a chin-up, putdown-armed Beatrice, the avowed singleton who gives no quarter to resolute bachelor Benedick, a sweetly debonair Ralph Davis, unbuttoning his shirt but intent on avoiding the man-trap of marriage.

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