The 1940s were a period of great social change, particularly for women. When the men left their homes, families, and jobs to fight in WWII, the women were left to pick up the pieces. Women went to work in positions of manual labour—jobs their gender had once forbidden. The 1940s offered women a newfound autonomy, granting them opportunities that were no longer exclusive to men.

From a feminist perspective, there’s no better time to frame a classic script than the 1940s. Carly Chamberlain embarked on this task while directing a contemporary rendition of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. In a script laden with misogyny, Chamberlain reads between the lines and finds room to address female agency in a male-dominated world.

Much Ado About Nothing premiered at Hart House Theatre last Friday evening. After learning about Chamberlain’s progressive ideas for this script, I was anticipating a strong production. I’ll confess, I had no idea just how good it would be. Everything about this production was immaculate: the direction, acting, choreography, set, costumes, and props were carefully selected and rehearsed.

One of the most memorable aspects of Chamberlain’s direction is her seamless integration of female autonomy into the script. She casts women in male roles, including Lesley Robertson as the raucous constable Dogberry. She also “gender bends” the villainous Don John, casting Laura Meadows into the role of Donna John. Throughout the play, Chamberlain writes actions into the script that demonstrate individual will and stubbornness towards male opposition. The introduction of female autonomy levels the playing field, so to speak, as men and women appear as equal opponents in this classic “battle of the sexes.”

The story begins with the men returning from war. As they proudly enter the stage in their army uniforms, they interrupt the women’s laborious household chores. Leonato (Mike Vitorovich), a respectable nobleman, invites the men to stay in his home while they recuperate from battle. As the men and women mingle, we’re introduced to the headstrong Beatrice (Shalyn McFaul), the niece of Leonato, and the witty Bennedick (Christopher Darroch). The pair immediately engage in banter. Both characters are sharp-witted and abhor the constructs of love and marriage. They bicker about the other’s wit, intelligence, and likeability. Above all, they vow never to commit themselves to another person. Despite their mockery, or perhaps owing to it, the remaining characters secretly plot to make Beatrice and Bennedick fall in love with each other.

Opposite this duo is Claudio (Alan Shonfield), a young, bashful soldier who’s instantly drawn to Leonato’s daughter, Hero (Tatiana Deans). He falls in love with her and sets off to earn her hand in marriage. However, Donna John has other plans for the couple. Out of bitterness and hostility, she conjures a scheme to soil Hero’s reputation and create dissonance between the pair.

Donna John is arguably the most autonomous female role in this production. Her actions arise from independent desires, separate from any man. She even employs men to assist her in the task of ruining Hero and Claudio, demonstrating an authority that no other woman expresses in the script. While Don John is traditionally a male role, Chamberlain’s alteration of the character is a beneficial decision. Through Donna John, we see the potential of female villainy in a male-oriented script.

The question of female independence is ultimately a key feature in this production. Should the fiercely-independent Beatrice resign herself to marriage, a union she condemns from the start of the play? Or will her stubbornness towards this social standard prevail?

The play’s setting functioned as an important tool for plot and character development. The stage held three moving walls, each containing three large doorways. The size of the doorways depended on their proximity to the front of the stage, with the largest doorways in the front and the smallest in the back. These versatile pieces added depth to the stage, particularly when they shifted into a position where the doorways lined up, mimicking a shrinking hallway. The set pieces also contributed context to the script. For instance, an important component of the script is eavesdropping. The walls allowed characters to sneak across the stage unnoticed as they listened in to conversations.

In one scene, Leonato, Claudio, and Don Pedro (Chanakya Mukherjee) speak about Beatrice’s hidden love for Bennedick (a fake conversation they intend Bennedick to hear). In the background, Bennedick hides behind the stage pieces. He skulks between walls, trying to get closer to the group to hear their conversation. This is a moment of comedic relief. Darroch’s exaggerated and intrigued actions encouraged laughter from the audience. As the trio invents stories about Beatrice’s “love,” Bennedick pokes his head out from behind the walls and jumps up in disbelief, prompting more laughter.

The social commentary in this production is punctuated by the script’s comedy. Darroch gave a hilarious performance as Bennedick. Yet, the greatest comedic relief came from Robertson, whose performance spurred cheers and applause from the audience on multiple occasions. Robertson slipped into the role of Dogberry with ease. Her deliberately embellished actions and elevated tone of voice contributed humour and personality to her character.

The cast of Much Ado About Nothing transcended the script in a way I’ve never seen in a Shakespearean production. Their approach to the dialogue added greater meaning to the words and extended Shakespeare’s original context to suit a contemporary audience. The cast of this production went the extra mile, allowing their actions to parallel, and even surpass, the significance of the words. In one scene, Donna John enters the stage through a door and sits on the steps. Muffled jazz music plays in the background, suggesting that Donna John has escaped the party indoors to sit alone in the night. She pulls out a cigarette and lights up, staring across the stage and smoking thoughtfully. After a few minutes pass, Conrade (Erik Helle) emerges from the door and lights his own cigarette. Although the scene technically begins when the two characters speak to each other, the dialogue-free introduction sets the mood. We’re let into Donna John’s internal state without hearing her speak a word.

The closing scene is another notable moment of significance. Throughout the play, Hero lacks a voice. She allows men to govern her fate and she behaves passively as scandal unfolds around her. Chamberlain sought to address this issue in her direction. She explains, “I’ve been trying to find ways to cast women in roles that are traditionally male, and put women in positions in which they’re not just reacting. I’m also trying to find ways to grapple with Hero’s story that doesn’t necessarily change the original story, but does give her a slightly different path in order to give her agency. Or if not give her agency, at least highlight the fact that she doesn’t have agency in this story.”

Perhaps knowing Chamberlain’s intentions allowed me to find so much meaning in the final scene. As the characters exit the stage, Hero and Claudio linger. Hero begins to leave. Before she exits, she turns back to look at Claudio. They watch each other. Hero nods and holds out her hand to Claudio, offering forgiveness for his misguided anger earlier in the script. The pair then exit together. Although Hero doesn’t have a voice throughout the play, Chamberlain gives her one in this moment. For the first time, Hero acts independently and makes her own decision, accepting Claudio on her own terms.

The chosen era of this production was certainly a strong fit for the play’s content. The 1940s suited the script in a way that felt natural. Chamberlain worked with contemporary issues in a time that’s familiar, but still distant enough for the audience to react objectively.

Much Ado About Nothing runs until November 19 at Hart House Theatre.