In a wonderfully subversive yet fitting twist, Rough Magic’s new production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing will be set in an Irish caravan park. Directed by Ronan Phelan, this sparkling, screwball spin on the classic will hit the Kilkenny Arts Festival in August.
In a deluxe holiday home on the Irish coast, a group of friends gather for a week-long party full of debauchery, bad dancing and questionable gender politics. As the celebrations continue, two couples emerge. Claudio and Hero fall deeply and madly in love, while Benedick and Beatrice resume their altogether more quarrelsome romance. Much Ado About Nothing charts the course of these two star-crossed courtships as malicious rumour and pointed lies threaten to tear them both apart.
So why did director Ronan Phelan pick this particular setting to tell the tale?
“I was really keen to set it in Ireland because I like hearing Shakespeare in Irish accents. Also, with Shakespearean text, especially with a distance of 500 years, it can feel remote enough already, so I wanted to contemporise it and look at what the play has to say about today. The original is set in Sicily and it’s these lads on the way back from a war who stop off at their mate’s villa – it’s kind of a holiday scenario. So I thought – what’s the quintessential Irish holiday?”
Growing up as a gay child in an Ireland which at that time wasn’t very hospitable to the queer community, Phelan was perceptive to the nuance of relationships, things that went unspoken. The director was influenced by childhood holidays taken with extended family, and always connected to that was the family’s love of country music. He described how it was the soundtrack to so many Irish holidays, with its playful irreverence; but deeper than that it also has more problematic aspects with enforced gender roles. So for a play obsessed with gender roles, country music just seemed right.
Phelan worked on the show with his long term partner, Nathan O’Donnell. So did anything interesting arise when two men in a gay relationship adapted a play about straight relationships?
“Though we’re talking about heteronormative relationships, essentially, the thing at the center of it is people who are trying to balance the equation of love. That they feel this thing for a person but socially are required to act a certain way. You also see in the play that the roles within gender are a burden for the characters – the men feel the pressure to be strong and sure of who they are and the women feel the burden to be demure and modest. The play is about how these roles are a bit of a prison, so how do we find a way to own them for ourselves?
“I really identify with all those ideas, the fact that it’s man and a woman in love, I mean, I’m in a long term relationship, I understand that there’s always a negotiation of power. And there are always different roles that people are going to play within their relationships. Those things are available to all of us, regardless of our orientation.”
Catch Much Ado About Nothing at the Kilkenny Arts Festival from August 8 to 18. Tickets available here.
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