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Lydia Barnett-Mulligan on 'Much Ado About Nothing'

by Kilian Melloy
Wednesday Apr 25, 2018

A story about fake news of the most vicious sort, deployed for the basest of reasons. Sound like it might have some resonance for the current era?

How about a story of two women whose marriage is threatened by the manipulations of a liar with no moral code?

It's easy to peg the first description to Shakespeare's play "Much Ado About Nothing," which is running now through May 6 at the Multicultural Arts Center in Cambridge as part of Actors' Shakespeare Project's current season. As for the second description, that's not such a stretch for the company, which has thrilled audiences and revitalized the Bard's texts with gender-blind - and even deliberately gender-crossing - casting choices, including an all-female version of "Julius Caesar" earlier this season.

One of Shakespeare's more beloved comedies - and a box office success when Kenneth Branaugh brought it to the big screen in a 1993 film version - "Much Ado About Nothing" boasts the familiar story of Benedick and Beatrice, a seemingly mismatched pair whose boundless love for one another is cloaked in an ongoing "merry war" of insults and put-downs. But there's a second, parallel love story in the play, and it's the one that provides the work's dramatic impetus: Hero and Claudio are also desperately in love, but Hero has been promised to Don Pedro by her father. Though the pair does secure the blessings of Hero's father to wed - with the help of the kind-hearted Don Pedro, no less - the vengeful Don John (Don Pedro's bastard brother) seeks to upend their nuptials and spread scandal and disgrace all around. To this end, Don John fabricates a story that Hero is carrying on an adulterous affair and then engineers a situation that looks, to Don Pedro and Claudio, like confirmation of Don John's lies. Will love lie in ruins? Or can the day be saved and evildoers vanquished by true and faithful hearts?

Bringing extra spice - not to mention contemporary cultural relevance - to the story is the casting, and portrayal, of Hero and Claudio as two women. EDGE had a chance to catch up with ASP company actor Lydia Barnett-Mulligan, who plays Hero in the production, to ask for her insights into Shakespeare, this production of "Much Ado About Nothing," and ASP's broadening horizons.


EDGE: You've been acting in Shakespeare plays since you were 15, so you must have gained quite a lot of insight into that canon of work. What drew you to Shakespeare and keeps you coming back to his work?

Lydia Barnett-Mulligan: I grew up in the Berkshires near Lenox, Massachusetts, where Shakespeare and Company is, and they have a really extraordinary program where they go into ten high schools in the area and direct a high school play at each one, a 90-minute cutting of a Shakespeare play. It's called the Fall Festival of Shakespeare. They bring all of the schools together periodically throughout the process, and then at the end for a weekend that they describe as "the rock concert of Shakespeare," and it's 500 teenagers doing ten Shakespeare plays over four days at Shakespeare and Company.

Needless to say, I thought that was the coolest thing in the entire world! They make it so fun! It's just a really beautiful experience, and the directors are just top-notch Shakespeare actors. It's a deeply collaborative, joyful experience. That environment is how I first encountered Shakespeare, and it's actually also how Brooke, the actress who plays Beatrice in our play, it was her first introduction to Shakespeare as well. She's also a Berkshires girl and encountered it in a student youth program. And Abby, the young actress in our play, came up through our youth program at Actors' Shakespeare Project! So there's a lot of people in our show for whom it's something of a life-long love.

I think the thing that keeps me coming back to it is no matter what age I am, I get like I'm witnessing some different aspects about how messy it is to be a human being, I think when I was doing it when I was 14, 15 years old, I was excited because it gave me language for big things like falling in love for the first time or getting pissed off at the establishment for the first time...

[Laughter]

Things like that, that you start to experience as a teenager for the first time that feels like these giant feelings. It gave me giant words to express them. Even when I do the same play over and over, and there's a couple of them that I've done probably four times, I always hear different things in the language, and the group of artists that I'm in makes it really different. It always feels like it's changing, and it always feels like it's deeply connected to whatever's going on in the world, whether it's the big political world or my own personal world.

There's always some kind of thing that clicks in; for example, I remember doing "Macbeth" when I was a kid, during the Bush election. I remember working on a scene in "Macbeth" where people are talking about feeling like their country is going in scary and hateful directions, and I remember working on that scene on the night of the election and finding out what was going on and being, like, "Omigod! What's happening?" and feeling like things were spinning out of control just like they were in "Macbeth." All the plays feel like they tie in with something bigger.

EDGE: It's true. Other playwrights go in and out of fashion and are lost and rediscovered, but Shakespeare has been going strong for over four centuries, so obviously he's tapped into something big and important.

Lydia Barnett-Mulligan: It's really amazing. There's just always some connection. I've never done a show and then been like, "Oh, that was a fun, fluffy comedy." Even the ones that are mostly comedies, there's something that's a gut punch in there.

EDGE: Before we get into your particular role in "Much Ado About Nothing," let's talk for a moment about the play itself. The play addresses the ways in which appearances can be manipulated; the dominant narrative can be falsified by people who want to advance their own ends; and even the title - I got this Wikipedia - even the title is a pun, because "noting" back in Shakespeare's day meant "gossip." So it's like Shakespeare saw all this stuff very clearly, and it's still happening today. Is the director, Christopher Edwards, exploring this theme and connecting it to contemporary concerns?

Lydia Barnett-Mulligan: Yes. The one thing that's come up that really jumps out of the play for me is this idea of "alternative facts," and not knowing what information to trust and people being deeply manipulated. I think that is really present in the play - this idea that you can't even trust your own eyes. People in the play see something happen and they have every reason to believe that it's real because they have seen it with their own eyes [and yet they have been led to believe in a falsehood]. So it's not even a matter of, "I heard this gossip," "Or I read this online, therefore I believe it to be true." The trickery in the play is so deceitful that people believe they are eyewitnesses to things that are, in fact, not true. So that's definitely come up, and I think it is really expressed in the story that once a narrative has launched it's beyond your control. It's definitely happening for [my character Hero] in a horrible way - that I have no idea what's going on.

When I'm being essentially slut-shamed at my wedding - which is really what's happening, in a grotesque way - one thing that we explored a lot is that I really don't know what's going on until almost the end of that scene. It's just everyone turning against me and yelling these really hateful words at me, and I don't understand exactly that they believe that they think they have seen me committing an infidelity. I don't know that. That was sort of a hard concept for me to wrap my brain around, because the audience, of course, knows - they witnessed the perceived infidelity, along with many characters in the play. But I'm the only one that s left in the dark, so it's cool to look at that and see what we choose to believe. In the middle of the witty comedy it kind of brings everything to a screeching halt in, I think, a really powerful way - in terms of how scared of I can be.

EDGE: You play Hero and you're paired with Esme Allen, who's playing Claudio. What's the story with this casting? Are Claudio and Hero meant to be a same-sex couple?

Lydia Barnett-Mulligan: I am really excited about this, and this is one of the things that's making me most excited to be doing this play! When the play was cast, which was about a year ago, I was already cast as Hero and the director and casting director were casting for Claudio and they had me come in and meet with people. I read with some men, and I read with some women. The chemistry with the women was really powerful. Several of the women who read were absolutely brilliant, but particularly Esme, who has just an unbelievably deep take on this character that is unbelievably thrilling to watch.

So, the short answer your question is, yes, Esme is playing Claudio as a woman. Sometimes we'll have women playing male roles and we'll sort of let it be ambiguous, or we'll have them play "men," what does that even mean...

[Laugher}

But she is very much playing it as a woman and we are playing it as a same-sex relationship, I think one thing that's really poignant about this is our love for each other feels like we just barely were able to get it because... how do I say this... Hero is betrothed to the prince. I'm supposed to marry the Prince. And the prince turns out to be this really nice guy and he knows that Claudio loves Hero and he gives up his claim to Hero and actually helps Claudio to win me and also to persuade Hero's father that this is okay. In our version of the play it's also a matter of him helping persuade Hero's father that it's okay Hero's marrying another woman, which is - that feels very powerful, to have to ask permission to be with the person that you love; to have that permission granted; and then to have it almost immediately taken away in such an ugly way. So I think that having this be a love story between two women - I just think it's awesome!

[Laughter]

And I also think it raises the stakes on our relationship and the fact that it wasn't just handed to us. We had to ask permission. It's a tenuous thing, because even in the world of our play, where we're experimenting a lot with gender and we have some characters in the play who are non-binary and we have some characters who are gay, and we're trying to create a very real look at what the world is and the different expressions of gender - having it be two women just makes it feel like it ratchets things up a bit in terms of danger. The fact that we get to be together is a huge triumph.

EDGE: Claudio and Hero are sort of in parallel to another couple, Beatrice (played by Brooke Hardman) and Benedick (played by Omar Robinson). Do the four of you toss ideas back and forth as to how to draw out parallels and contrasts to the two couples at the heart of the play?

Lydia Barnett-Mulligan: We do, yeah, and I think that's one thing that Shakespeare does really well - shows the different ways that people can love each other. Beatrice and Benedick are famously quarreling throughout the whole play. They're hurling these incredibly witty insults at each other.

EDGE: They're having "a merry war."

Lydia Barnett-Mulligan: "A merry war," exactly. So their expression of their love is very verbal, it's very verbally violent, and it's very showy - they are often having these showdowns of wit in front of everyone and bringing the party to a screeching halt by yelling at each other. There is is a very kind of public one, and for Hero and Claudio... Hero doesn't speak very much throughout most of the play. It's been kind of a personal challenge for me because I love to talk and it's kind of funny to play a character that is silent at a lot of points. And Claudio - we just don't speak to each other very much. It's kind of like Romeo and Juliet, who don't have that many scenes together. The play is created around their love, but they actually don't spend that much time together before everything goes off the rails. So the Hero-Claudio relationship feels quieter and more private than the more showy relationship between Beatrice and Benedick.

I think one thing that we have that has come up for us - it's a really simple idea, but love can look very different for different people, and there's no one correct way to do it. Although, shaming your fiancée at your wedding it probably the wrong way.

EDGE: Looking over next season's lineup - the first one Mr. Edwards has put together as the new Artistic Director for ASP - there's a great mix of Shakespeare and more modern plays - including a play about William Shakespeare being caught up in political machinations and writing Macbeth (is it Macbeth?). Are you excited for the broadening of scope ASP is taking on?

Lydia Barnett-Mulligan: I am thrilled. One of my favorite things about being a member of the acting company is being involved in season planning. We really have a voice in offering suggestions for work we'd like to look at in future years. I'm really pumped about next year, about the whole lineup. It has emerged out some conversations we've had with our new and very beloved artistic director Chris; it's the first season he's been the head of planning because we brought him in last year.

All the plays have really rich language, which is something that's really important to us. All of them are dealing with themes that we're excited about outside of Shakespeare. We're really talking as a company about how we can bring equity, diversity, and inclusion more into the forefront of what we're presenting in our season; not just with who we're hiring, but with the stories that we're telling, and making sure that stories of women and people of color are making headlines, not just [being relegated to] supporting stories.

EDGE: Are you already planning what you'll be doing in terms of acting and maybe directing?

Lydia Barnett-Mulligan: I'm not directing next year. I haven't directed for the company yet, though I hope to in the future. I'll be acting, and we're not done without process on that. We're still working out the casting for next year, but you'll definitely see me in there somewhere!


"Much Ado About Nothing" continues through May 6 at the Multicultural Arts Center in Cambridge. For more information, please go to https://www.actorsshakespeareproject.org/plays-events/much-ado-about-nothing/

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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