Sparkle and Delight in “Much Ado About Nothing”

For the start of our 2013-2014 season Seattle Shakespeare Company’s Artistic Director George Mount is staging one of his favorite plays: “Much Ado About Nothing.” He recently sat down to talk about why he likes the play so much as well as some of the treats in store for the production.

Director George Mount talks with Matt Shimkus (Benedick) and Jennifer Lee Taylor (Beatrice) in rehearsal for "Much Ado About Nothing."
Director George Mount talks with Matt Shimkus (Benedick) and Jennifer Lee Taylor (Beatrice) in rehearsal for “Much Ado About Nothing.”

As someone who works in the Shakespeare world, I often get asked, “What’s your favorite Shakespeare play?”  In a sense I do have three answers for that.  The one play that I, as an actor, grew the most and felt the most connection with, was when I played Hamlet. The play that I always have the most fun working on is “The Comedy of Errors,” because you just spend the entire rehearsal process trying to think of the funniest things you can do. So every time I’ve worked on that show, the rehearsal process is just a day long laughter fest. So it’s super fun to do. But the play that I love the most…my actual overall favorite is “Much Ado About Nothing.” I love reading it, I love watching it, I love being in it.  I think that the characters are just delightful. The comedy in it runs the gamut from great wordplay to great character interactions, and it has goofy slapstick comedy as well.  It’s a play that invites an audience to just sit back, relax, and enjoy the sparkle and delight of the comedy and the characters. As terrible as things are in the play, the audience has the dramatic irony of knowing that everything is going to be all right. Because it’s “nothing,” nothing to worry about. Even the people who perpetrated the evil deed against poor Claudio and Hero are arrested the night before it actually happens. So when all of this terrible stuff is going down, you know the bad guys are already arrested. It’s just going to be a little while before everything gets worked out.  So as an audience member and reader of the play, the pressure of worry is relieved, and you can just enjoy what’s being said, and how it’s being said, who these wonderful people are.  So I really love that about the play.

A Year of Cultural Shifts

Research materials for "Much Ado About Nothing."
Research materials for “Much Ado About Nothing.”

I wanted for this one to kind of emphasize that fun, glamorous, effortlessness, breeziness that I find so charming about the play. In my mind I began rolling around with the idea of what time period could reflect something like that. But that also might have just a little hint of something dark lurking underneath.  A little change a-happening. At first I thought…maybe the 1970s.  At the beginning of the play some of the men are coming back from war, but I didn’t want to bring in the Vietnam War. And then I got to thinking about glamorous old Hollywood of the 40s and 50s, and landed on, although we may fudge it by a few months, the year 1953.  It was the year that the cessation of hostilities and the Korean conflict happened. As terrible of a war as it was, it doesn’t have the same baggage that the Vietnam War has.  So we’ve set it in 1953 in a posh seaside resort on the Riviera.  Now whether it’s the French Riviera, the Italian Riviera or even Catalina Island, we’re not going to be quite so specific about that. But it will be bright, sunny, and breezy.  We’ll get a “To-Catch-a-Thief”-Grace-Kelly-at-the-top-of-her-career feel about these characters.  In addition to old Hollywood glamour, 1953 was also the year that Joseph McCarthy started the hearings on the US Army and possible Communist infiltration. It was the year the second Kinsey Report on the sexuality of the human female came out. It was the year the term “rock-n-roll” was coined and the first “rock-n-roll” hit made the Billboard charts. It was the year that Marlon Brando was in the film “The Wild Ones” with his leather jacket and motorcycle. That film marks the beginning of the youth counter culture movement.  It was the year Playboy magazine was first published.  So there are the beginnings of a cultural shift that is starting to happen in that year.

The main storyline will be our attempt at that kind of Technicolor, gorgeous old Hollywood world on the Riviera. Then occasionally, particularly with the machinations of Don John, who’s the chaos bringer and mischief maker in this play, it’s in his world where we can catch the glimpse of some of the cultural changes that are starting to take shape. We might literally have one of his sidekicks dress like Marlon Brando from “The Wild Ones” or have another take out that first issue of Playboy to read.  So we’ll get to see that there is a change in the wind. But in the meantime, sit back, and relax and fun.  Watch the sun set down over the waters in the Mediterranean or the Pacific Ocean, or where ever exactly we are.

Recreating the Riviera

Much Ado Set Design
Set design for “Much Ado About Nothing.”

We will have a live water feature on stage, since it is set in the Riviera. There will be water that people will fall into and get actively wet. In fact, we’ve talked with Craig Wollam who is designed the set, about trying to get all four of the natural elements involved in the show in some way.  We’ll have water, and some fans running to blow around some of the palm trees and palm grass we’ll have. So there’s wind.  There’s a little bit of rockery on the set, so that’s the earth. And then in one scene, a graveside mourning scene, we’ll probably release some floating candles into the water…so there’s our fire.

The costumes are going to be so gorgeous. Doris Black and I have been pouring over pictures of period appropriate beachwear with bright colors. The sunny atmosphere of the show is what we’re really focused on. The goal is ravishing beauty…and fortunately enough we’ve cast Jennifer Lee Taylor as Beatrice and Matt Shimkus as Benedick, so right from the top down you’ve got ravishing beauty.

"Much Ado About Nothing" costume design for Beatrice
“Much Ado About Nothing” costume design for Beatrice

For this show I’m working with Michael Brockman who is the co-artistic director of Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra. He is composing music for the two song that are in the play. With the setting of 1953, the top of the Billboard charts at the time featured people like Eddie Fisher and Dean Martin.  Pop-swing was the kind of music that I wanted to showcase for this play. Big Bands were diminishing in popularity, but there was still that crooner with a swing-pop sensibility that was making the charts. Not pure jazz, but pop music.  I felt that was the kind of soundtrack we wanted for the show.  And being a fan of the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra, they know all kinds of jazz.

I first approached Michael Brockman about doing collaborating on Duke Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder suite.  It’s a sequence of music inspired by the world of Shakespeare. SRJO will be performing that suite in February and we will be providing a couple of actors who will be reading selections of Shakespeare in between a few of the songs.  We hit it off talking about that project, and then it occurred to me that I might be able to use Michael’s help on “Much Ado About Nothing.” Michael got very excited about it, and I have a history and personal aesthetic about working with composers for the songs in Shakespeare who you don’t necessarily associate with Shakespeare, let alone theatre, at all.  It gives them an opportunity to explore a world that’s outside of their normal, creative life and it gives me an opportunity to explore a world that’s outside of my regular creative life.

Seattle Shakespeare Company’s production of “Much Ado About Nothing ” runs October 23 – November 17, 2013.