Much Ado about #MeToo

It is one of William Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, with its story of young love thwarted by plots, misinformation, broken promises and one bumbling cop. But how does Much Ado About Nothing stack up in the #MeToo era, when the idea of a woman’s voice being silenced is no longer such a joke.

For Zindzi Okenyo, who plays the outspoken heroine Beatrice, it was the ability to give Shakespeare’s women a louder voice and dig out the play’s more serious undertones that made it so appealing

Zindzi Okenyo (left) and Vivienne Awosoga, who plays Hero, in rehersals for Bell Shakespeare’s production of Much Ado About Nothing.Credit:Prudence Upton

“The last time I saw it was maybe six or seven years ago, it was done really well, but focused on the foolery, the fun and frivolity,” she says. “Whereas the whole framework we’ve put it in for our production in 2019, there is all that fun in the lightness and the comedy, but Beatrice really serves as a conduit to a more serious undertone.

“That’s what’s so cool about doing this play now, as opposed to, say, even six years ago, in terms of people feeling they can speak, in terms of women being able to speak out,” she says. “So the play, in that sense, is incredibly relevant and contemporary. And that’s something we’ve really tried to bring out because, considering how badly the men behaved, if you weren’t to address it, it would be a bit of a cop out.”

What Okenyo is referring to is a critical scene in which Beatrice’s cousin Hero (played by Vivienne Awosoga) is denounced at her wedding for allegedly cheating on her beau, Claudio (see, very Married At First Sight). And even though it’s quite tragic, it’s this scene that’s giving Okenyo the most satisfaction.

“Usually that can be passed over or really not taken that seriously, how badly the men behaved at the wedding,” says Okenyo. “But it’s really great because the audiences are reacting to all of the fun, they’re in stitches, but when it comes to this serious moment in the play, I don’t think they’re really expecting it.

“They’re dead silent and really, really listening and I feel like the focus comes in when Beatrice is giving her big speech about how men say they are one thing but actually underneath they are a completely different thing. They say they are chivalrous, but really, what are they doing, you know?

“I love that. It’s so cool as a performer, it’s our job to hopefully make everyone laugh and then make everyone cry. It’s good fun.”

This tour of Much Ado is the longest Okenyo has done with Bell Shakespeare, with the 10 cast and five crew flying and driving between the 27 cities and towns booked on the tour. When on the road, however – divided between four Kia Carnivals – there is one rule they all obey: the person in the front passenger seat gets to pick the playlist.

For Okenyo, this could present a golden opportunity: to play music from her critically acclaimed debut EP, The Wave. So is it on high rotation on the Kia’s stereo?

“I never play my own stuff,” she says, laughing. “I’ve been introducing a lot of the cast to R&B and hip-hop – Frank Ocean, Emily King, GoldLink.”

Much Ado about Nothing is at the Sydney Opera House from October 22 to November 24.

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