Spotlight: MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING in the West End

Much Ado About Nothing (jacket)This month we published the official tie-in edition to the West End production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing – starring David Tennant as Benedick and Catherine Tate as Beatrice. Directed by Josie Rourke (who’ll shortly be moving to the Donmar Warehouse from her current job as Artistic Director of the Bush Theatre), the production is undoubtedly the summer’s hottest ticket. Our book includes the version of Shakespeare’s text being used in the production, along with exclusive material about the production, including interviews with the cast and creative team, design sketches, sheet music and a rehearsal diary by Associate Director Robert Hastie. Read on for extracts from his fascinating behind-the-scenes commentary on the making of a West End hit…

Monday 4th April 2011
‘I learn in this letter…’ The read-through has started. Standing in a big circle in the rehearsal room in West London are the cast of Much Ado About Nothing – and what a handsome bunch they are. Leo Staar, as the Messenger, is having his first encounter with Catherine Tate’s Beatrice. Read-throughs are often an actor’s least favourite bit of the rehearsal process, and can frequently be muted affairs with everyone mumbling and burying themselves in their scripts, scared to make any choices that may be used in evidence against them at a later date. But Catherine, Leo and Jonathan Coy as Leonato dive straight in with reassuring courage, and everyone follows suit. Five minutes in, the company are already making each other laugh. Which is fortunate considering, as Josie points out, they will be spending the whole summer together…

‘Strike up, pipers!’ says David Tennant, and the read-through is over. Rob Jones, the designer, shows us his model of the set and takes us step by step through the various locations his terrifically versatile design can achieve. The younger actors gather round, marvelling at the detail of the tiny model sun loungers, while the older ones quietly calculate where they’ll make their first entrance. Technology being what it is these days, we are also able to see a big-screen presentation showing the movement of the set from one scene to the next. The company are intrigued by what appears to be a mobile disco unit in Act Two, Scene One…

The first day of rehearsals can feel like the first day of school. Everyone seems to know everyone else, and you’re alone and nervous and wondering why you wore these shoes, and surely they never meant to cast you at all and were actually thinking of that other actress called Jenny who’s got the same agent. It’s hard to believe at this point that in only a few weeks’ time you’ll feel like the best of friends.

Wednesday 6th April
We start the day by testing some hardware. The production team has been here since seven o’clock constructing the giant revolving floor that will form the centre of the set. Jordan, the Assistant Stage Manager, plays with the controls; it will be his job to operate them during performance. In order to test how fast the revolve can go with the whole cast on it, everyone in the room climbs aboard, and as not all of the company have arrived yet, the staff of the Bush Theatre are recruited from their office upstairs to make up the body count. We all stand round the edge of the revolving disc as Jordan turns up the dial. Maximum speed is hardly a ride on the waltzers, but the novelty of it still has us grinning like children.

Josie has decided not to spend several days sitting around a table examining the text as some directors do, and as she herself has done in the past – instead we will unpick each scene as we come to it, working on the text and then getting the scene on its feet in the same session. Of all Shakespeare’s plays, the language of Much Ado is among the most accessible to us today, and there is little that is obscurely archaic. The actors in Act One, Scene One stand in a circle, their scripts placed in front of them on music stands, and we begin.

Friday 8th April
The rest of the company arrive at eleven o’clock, and as it’s the first time the whole acting company has come together in one room, we take a moment to talk about spray tans. The play is set in a Mediterranean world of blue skies and sunshine, and it makes sense that the people in it look as if they’ve spent some time in the sun. The guys from the hair and make-up department are here to meet everyone, and some of the cast (those more experienced than others in the dark arts of artificial tanning) become enthusiastic about the possibility of having our own spraying booth in the theatre. There is much talk of exfoliation and top-up lotions, and a few bewildered, fearful faces among the male members of the company.

Talking of tans, it’s the first beautiful day of the year. Several of the company sit on the grass outside to eat lunch, and when it’s time to start work again, there are mutterings along the lines of ‘Miss, can we do the lesson outside?’ But back in the rehearsal room, much excitement greets the reappearance of George the movement director, armed with an iPod full of ’80s dance classics. It’s one of the most entertaining afternoons in a rehearsal room any of us can remember, as the company get to grips with all the popping, pointing and posturing they’ve gleaned from their homework assignments. Bonnie Tyler’s ‘I Need a Hero’ blares out, and George teaches everyone the ‘running man’. It’s a joyous end to the first week, and with a bit of luck will keep our spirits buoyant as we move on to the darker scenes in the play’s second half…

Nick Hern Books publish the official tie-in edition alongside the production at Wyndham’s Theatre, London, playing from 16th May to 3rd September 2011. To purchase your copy with free P&P (UK customers only) click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout.

Click here to visit the production’s website.

Five minutes with Bruce Norris – author of CLYBOURNE PARK

jacket image of Clybourne Park

Bruce Norris’s raucously funny and fearlessly shocking racial satire Clybourne Park opened in the West End this week. Since its UK debut at the Royal Court Theatre in 2010, the play has received widespread critical acclaim – hailed as ‘the funniest play of the year’ (Evening Standard), ‘genius’ (Times) and ‘out of this world’ (Independent) – and has already scooped all of the prestigious theatre awards. We tracked down the author in his native USA to ask him a few burning questions, exclusively for the NHB blog…! 


Clybourne Park dares to confront the submerged racism of its characters, black as well as white, in a potentially explosive way. Do you think it important to provoke audiences in the theatre as well as make them laugh?

I’m not sure whether or not it’s important, per se, it’s just what I enjoy. I’ve always been argumentative by nature and so anything that might potentially cause a fight in the theatre amuses me, as long as fists aren’t used. I had a friend say to me recently, “you should never say mean things to people because words can hurt as much as a fist.” I asked her if she’d ever been hit by a fist? She said no, so I said then maybe someone should hit you so that you’d have proper basis for your comparison.

How have you found British audiences have reacted to the play? Has there been a notable difference to the reaction in the US?

I think that what’s surprising is that the reactions have been remarkably consistent. I think that that’s because theatre-going audiences in the US and the UK draw upon a similar constituency: Well-educated, privileged and (primarily) white people.  Conservatives also go to the theatre in both places, but they go to see shows like The Lion King or Jersey Boys. Conservatives prefer musicals, (or failing that, Shakespeare) and that’s because they know full well that the creators of the kind of theatre you’d see at the Royal Court are, by and large, liberal – sometimes in the extreme – and they (the conservatives) don’t want to go somewhere only to be preached at by people with different opinions. I don’t blame them; I’d hate to go see a play by some conservative bastard whose opinions I despised. The only problem with all of that is, when there is no political or cultural disagreement in an audience it makes for a rather bland experience where our values are simply reconfirmed by the play that we see.  So I find it interesting to explore what would potentially divide or upset a mono-culturally liberal audience – and liberals, currently, are rather easy to upset, both in the US and UK because we’ve been effectively silenced by a dominant center-right coalition for several decades, and are thus, unsurprisingly, a little edgy.

What are your views on the American model of funding theatre (e.g. private finance/philanthropy), and do you think the British Government is right to encourage the UK’s subsidised arts sector to adopt this model?

That’s a really tricky question. Obviously we theatre people over here in the US are ridiculously jealous of your system and would benefit enormously from having some (less paltry) government subsidy for the Arts. If American theatre actors could make a comparable living to London theatre actors they’d be dancing in the streets.  The problem for me (and this is where I become slightly – oh god, dare I say it? – conservative) is that, in order to advocate for government money to be placed in service of the theatre, I’d have to believe that theatre – including the theatre I create – was some kind of social necessity that justified taking away tax dollars from housing programs or education or health care for those who can’t get it via other means. I’m just not sure theatre is important than those things. Correction: I know it’s not. Of course, others would say but your tax dollars are already going to support unjustified wars…Yes, true. But I don’t think that funding one can contradict the other. I don’t think that theatre promotes political change; I think you’d be hard-pressed to show me a real, concrete example of how it does. Moreover, I think that if you’re looking to theatre to effect political change you’ve chosen the most inefficient means possible. I think theatre reflects and responds to the world we live in, rather than leading it. So, how do you justify its funding at the governmental level?

On the other hand, you’ve got the US model. Here’s an interesting fact: The Chairwoman (or -person) of the Board of Directors at Playwrights Horizons (the theatre where Clybourne Park had its premiere), the woman principally responsible for raising money from various corporate entities to fund the existence of that theatre, is married to…former US Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, formerly a board member of Goldman Sachs, and arguably someone who holds partial responsibility for the mess our economy is currently in (and, it should be noted, a lovely man and a fan of my play). Yikes. How to make sense of that?  Here our economy is in free-fall, jobs lost, houses foreclosed upon, and we in the theatre are expected to somehow respond to all of this while at the same time our very existence is being made possible by the very people who put us into this situation? And so you have an entirely different question:  If the money that goes to pay our bills is drawn from the same coffers that perpetuate policies with which we disagree, how should we respond? Are we content to be jesters for a court of Medicis? Or do we attack them with our savage theatrical thrust (that was sarcasm) with the aim to somehow bring them down? And what if we could? Doesn’t Playwrights Horizons exist as a function of the largesse of the wealthy? Should we be grateful for that, or resentful? If we could somehow, through the mechanism of theatre, foment a liberal economic revolution (more sarcasm) that would somehow level the playing field, and thus redistribute some of that same largesse to some of the less fortunate, such as theatre people…wouldn’t that, then, eliminate Playwrights Horizons altogether, and simply bring us back around to the previous paragraph? I wish I knew the answer, but I don’t.

Clybourne Park is currently playing at the Wyndham’s Theatre, London, to 7 May 2011.

AWARDS: Evening Standard Best Play * Critics’ Circle Best New Play * South Bank Sky Arts Best New Play * NOMINATIONS: Olivier Awards – MasterCard Best New Play

PART 5: Bruntwood Playwriting Competition 2011

image of Andrew Sheridan

Andrew Sheridan receiving his award

Andrew Sheridan is a joint-winner of the 2008 Bruntwood Playwriting Competition for his play Winterlong – ‘a dazzling debutGuardian. Set in Manchester, the play explores what happens when a baby is discarded a few nights before Christmas. Sheridan is also an actor, and has appeared in award-winning TV, film and theatre.

How would you describe your play, Winterlong?

It’s a play that wears its heart on its sleeve. There’s no bullshit with it. It doesn’t pull any punches. It’s direct. It’s like Mancunian people. We’re direct. There’s no flannel.

So a sense of place, of belonging in Manchester is important to you as a writer?

I’m Mancunian. I write with a Mancunian voice. It’s important. It always has been. It comes from a tradition, a history of having to search for beauty in the ugly. It has to be shiny and bold and revolutionary. Full of vibrancy and expectation. It has to speak louder than other voices not because it wants to but because it has to. It doesn’t have a choice.

How have you found the experience of working with the director, Sarah Frankcom, on your play?

Sarah Frankcom is without doubt one of the most important directors working in British theatre. She has such an understanding of me as a writer. She has always believed in my play and the characters that populate it. She has never wavered in her support and vigour to direct my play with truth and honesty and daring. I would trust her with my life.

It must be strange – as an actor – to be watching other actors do the job for a change?

Going from actor to writer is slightly weird – almost like trying to walk again or learning to ride a bike. It really hit me when we started casting really. I suddenly realised that I was on the wrong side of the table, and I was so used to walking into the room and seeing these three people, the casting director, the writer and the director.

And the cast?

Every one of the actors in Winterlong is the best there is. They are quality. End of. They all bring an amazing amount individually and collectively to it. I’m so lucky. They’ve all clicked into that Manchester vibe of thinking regarding the play and how they feel about it. “We’re all doing this and we don’t care if you like it or not. We’re doing it.”

jacket image of WINTERLONG

Winterlong by Andrew Sheridan

How does it feel to have your play staged at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre?

The Exchange is where I saw my first play. The Exchange is where I got my first acting job. The Exchange is the theatre that will premiere my first play. I can’t say how much this building means to me. It creates some of this country’s strongest and most daring theatre and all the people who work there are the best there is. They are all totally sound.

How important has the Bruntwood Playwriting Competition been to you?

I think the Bruntwood is the most important new playwriting competition in this country! You can enter the competition completely anonymously. No one knows who you are. It could be your first play, it could be your fifth play, it doesn’t matter, you will be judged on the merit of what you write and that is what’s so good about the competition.

Bruntwood are doing such a good job really considering the hard times that we’re going through economically in this country and the cuts to the arts. They’re  really maintaining what’s important for new writing theatre. It’s just so important at this time that this competition continues… Well done to Bruntwood for doing it and the Royal Exchange for hosting it!

Winterlong received its world premiere at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, February 2011. It will later transfer to Soho Theatre, London, opening on 23 February 2011.

Next week: Bruce Norris on his multi-award-winning hit Clybourne Park – now playing in the West End at the Wyndham’s Theatre until May 2011 after a sell-out run at the Royal Court.