Sunday, 18 June 2017

REVIEW: I Know You of Old at The Hope Theatre

'You always end with a jade’s trick. I know you of old.' Shouts Beatrice (Sarah Lambie) at the end of yet another quick repartee with Benedick (David Fairs). In William Shakespeare's comedy Much Ado About Nothing, most of the action revolves around this unconventional couple, where they both take pride in publicly mocking each other but they're intentionally tricked into falling in love. Using only The Bard's original lines, David Fairs wrote a completely different play, where the relationship between Benedick and Beatrice preserves its chracteristic wit but receives a dark twist. 

Staged in modern times, I Know You of Old, is set in a chapel, where the audience is sat around Hero's coffin. She is dead, unable to cope with the public shaming received on her wedding day. After being wrongly accused of infidelity by her fiancee Claudio (Conor O'Kane) and rejected by her father Leonato, she fainted in front of the altar and – differently from what happens in Shakespeare's plot – she has never woken up. Highlighting the mysoginistic attitude of Shakespeare's male characters, this reformed play restores justice for the wretched Hero and openly condemns the people responsible for her misery. Thanks to a fortuitous revelation, Claudio gets a chance to set things straight, whereas Beatrice has the opportunity to reinstate the honourable memory of her deceased cousin and confirm her strong and independent character.

In the auditorium, located above the Hope & Anchor pub, two rows of chairs are alligned along two walls, the floor is bright red and on the bier is a coffin covered with a white veil of lace. At the far end of the chapel, candles are burning under a portrait of the Virgin Mary and, on the opposite side, stands a wooden bench and a curtain printed with a tropical pattern. 

The opening scene begins with a cover of Chris Isaak's Wicked Games, before a man in full motorcycle gear walks in. The musical score has a prominent role in setting the tongue in cheek tone that David Fairs and director Anna Marsland intended for the play and, if you thought that Cher and William Shakespeare could never feature in the same piece, the two creatives are bound to prove you wrong. 

Despite the archaic language and the artificial recontruction of the dialogues, this experimental extension of Much Ado About Nothing is easy to follow and consistently entertaining. A few slower patches are revived by Marsland's lively direction and the ambitious plot twist is fully supported by the use of a mobile phone and some preliminary filming.

Impersonating the brash Benedick with confidence, Fairs gives an excellent
performance and allows the role to evolve with a richness of comic and dramatic nuances which is not necessarily present for the other two characters. His chemistry with Lambie is a pleasure to watch and, especially in the central part of the play, the couple looks smoking hot. 

With an improvement to the sightlines in the layout of the auditorium and a more balanced characterisation of the three roles – especially in their non-verbal language – I Know You Of Old could be equally and thoroughly enjoyed by Shakespeare's virtuosi as well as by a broader audience who are not necessarily familiar with the original work from which it was inspired.

Review by Marianna Meloni

Rating: ★★★★
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