Much Ado About Sex, Drugs and Glam Rock Pirates

The Volkstheater descends into rockstar territory in Much Ado About Nothing.

While the works of William Shakespeare are often considered timeless, that hasn’t kept people from trying to keep them relevant. The latest to do so is the Volkstheater, who have staged a heavily modernized version of Viel Lärm um Nichts (Much Ado About Nothing) translated into German by Angela Schanelec with surtitles in English and Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian. (If you’re reliant on the surtitles, choose a seat further back – they’re high up and hard to read up close.)

Director Sebastian Schug certainly had fun with the production. The cast – particularly the men – are decked out like glam rock pirates, somewhere between Errol Flynn and Mötley Crüe. The play opens with a large-scale mock battle, with fencing scenes thrown in throughout. There’s an on stage drum kit and electric guitars with cast members doubling as musicians throughout the play. The masquerade ball is staged as a huge, debauched party, with a line of blow drawn across the stage. There’s booze, drugs, simulated sex, even a brief flash of gratuitous full frontal male nudity at the beginning.

That said, the production mostly sticks to Shakespeare’s comedic plot and words (intranslation): As the victorious soldiers of Don Pedro return to the court of Leonato, governor of Messina, two couples are to be united by the end of the play: First off, the starry-eyed Claudio and Hero, who are crazy about each other but hampered by nefarious intrigues; and then the acerbic Beneditk and Beatrice, engaged in a “merry war” of words – a sure sign of a crush. As always, it requires a (benevolent) plot to tame these two shrews.

Shake, Drugs and Rock n’ Roll

There is some streamlining though – some may be disappointed that the bumbling constable and fan favorite Dogberry has been written out in this version. Instead, the deus ex machina and comic relief is handled by Friar Francis (Thomas Frank), a degenerate buffoon who attempts fornication with practically everything, spraying copious amounts of cocaine everywhere.

Also, there is some flirting with gender identity: the villain Don John is now Donna John, giving her envy more nuance; and it’s implied several times that Benedikt is more interested in men, reframing his misogyny. Neither angle is really explored though –there’s only so much you can add if there’s nothing in the source material.

Perhaps most unusual of all is just how physical the production is: Aside from the copious stage combat, there are pratfalls galore, with Father Francis in particular doing Oliver Hardy proud. The music numbers also help with the afterparty vibe: In the most effective scene, Beatrice (Isabella Knöll) expresses her budding feelings for Benedick by singing Elvis Presley’s Can’t Help Falling in Love – apprehensively at first, but with all her heart by the end of the second verse.

Overall, the experiment doesn’t always work, but the irreverent treatment evoked chuckles and guffaws – even the occasional belly laugh.

It may irritate purists, but ironically, Schug’s vision may be closer to the Bard’s own vision than your run-of-the-mill “Shakespeare in the Park.” The theater was a bawdy affair in the Elisabethan era, with few rivals aside from taverns and brothels – and all three heavily intertwined. In fact, Much Ado About Nothing is itself a vulgar pun – “nothing” was period slang for female genitalia (as in, “nothing between the legs”). The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Apr 7, 8 & 20, Volkstheater. 7., Arthur-Schnitzler-Platz 1.

Binu Starnegg
Manila born, Brooklyn bred and a longtime resident of Vienna, Binu Starnegg is currently managing editor for Metropole, where he completes myriad tasks with style and aplomb. Photo: Visual Hub

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