Given that I was just here a few months ago with a Merchant of Venice set on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1920s, I don’t want to get a reputation for being the guy who only resets Shakespeare. My responses to Merchant and to Much Ado are much more a matter of coincidence than of artistic preference.
For me, it’s important to distinguish between setting and concept. It is easy to confuse the two, for audiences and artists alike. All settings are a product of choice—a so-called “original practices” production is as much a choice of setting as a transposition of the play in time and place. A useful setting is a tool for further exploration—it should amplify themes and work with the text to illuminate the story. A concept stands outside the play, asking the play to flex itself to its demands.
Particularly at a theatre dedicated to classics, the director’s obligation is to find a setting that distinguishes itself from past productions, offering variety and insight to an audience already familiar with the work. But we must also make the play work for an audience encountering Much Ado for the first time. In this case I had the benefit of having produced a well-received production of the play at the Chautauqua Theater Company, directed by my friend and longtime collaborator Vivienne Benesch. I was so impressed with the opportunities the Cuban setting afforded the play that when Michael offered me the job, I told him I probably would want to explore what we had started in a limited engagement in the summer of 2007 at CTC.
The setting for this Much Ado is on a sugar cane plantation in Cuba in the middle of the 1930s. In 1933, 45% of the world’s sugar was produced in Cuba; a few corporations and families were the dominant players. In this case, we’re at Leonato’s hacienda, a rural estate populated by him, his brother and a lot of young women. And into this environment comes an army of eligible men returning from successfully quashing a local uprising. That inciting event gives the play its spark.
Much Ado is a surprisingly naturalistic play for Shakespeare—which perhaps accounts for its significant proportion of prose—and it’s possible to confine the action to a single location like our courtyard. Cuba turns out to be especially felicitous for many reasons—like Shakespeare’s original setting of Sicily, it is an island. And in this case it is a hot and sexy island (it would be hard to imagine Much Ado in a cold climate, though I am sure that’s been done). It’s also a society with a certain amount of machismo and rules of conduct defined by gender. And there is already a Spanish flavor laced into Shakespeare’s text: Dons Pedro and John come from Aragon, which was actually along the present-day Spanish coast.
There are other useful parallels, including simmering revolutions and military conflicts. In the play and in our setting, the morality of the Catholic Church is very strong—wooing, wedding and repenting have mortal stakes. And it is a society with distinctions built on class. There are haves and have-nots in this play, and there is a stark divide between the lives of the two groups.
Only Shakespeare and those of us in the audience know that the play is called Much Ado About Nothing. To the people in the play, it’s not nothing at all. In fact, what’s happening is at times a life or death struggle. It’s a rich, deep and textured world—a grown-up love story whose heart has a Latin beat no matter where you set it. And we’re looking forward to bringing it to life for you.