Hart House Theatre is in the midst of finalizing their second play of the 2016/2017 season. And under the direction of Carly Chamberlain, it’s guaranteed to be a good one. Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is a comedic “battle of the sexes”, yet it also engages with significant issues of female identity, war, and love. Chamberlain is approaching this production with the intention of bringing contemporary issues into a classic script, such as providing female characters with proper agency—or at least addressing their lack of agency in a patriarchal world. Chamberlain sets the script in the 1940s, post-WWII, where the roles between men and women have become interchangeable.

The Medium: Do you have any ties to Much Ado About Nothing?

Carly Chamberlain: I have a lot of ties to Much Ado About Nothing. It’s one of my favourite plays for women. Beatrice in particular is strong and smart—it’s a meaty role. Like most women, I always wanted to play her. My first professional audition was for a production of Much Ado About Nothing. I didn’t get that part, but my first role after that was in another production of Much Ado About Nothing, with Canopy Theatre. They’re on hiatus right now, but they’re actually run by the same people that run Hart House Theatre. That was how I met everyone who works here now. So, you could say I have a personal connection to it.

TM: I’ve read that you directed for Hart House before with Goodnight Desdemona (Good morning Juliet). What are you doing similarly or differently in this production from that play?

CC: The scale is just much bigger in Much Ado About Nothing. Goodnight Desdemona (Good morning Juliet) was a five-person cast, and we had a shorter rehearsal period and a shorter run. It was a smaller show of the season. And Much Ado is quite big. It’s a 15-person cast. We’re trying to use the space in a different way. As an actor, I’ve worked a lot on Shakespeare, but this is my first time directing a full Shakespearean play.

TM: What has the rehearsal process been like?

CC: It’s been really exciting and exhausting. My big thing in rehearsal is trying not to move too fast or trying to find all the answers right away. We’ve been working incrementally to mind the story and mind what it means to us. And the challenge for us, for me, is trusting that that work pays off. It’s a tough text. It’s tough for actors and it’s tough for directors, so there are moments in rehearsal when you just want to say, “Give me all the answers!” But I’m just trying to trust that the incremental steps can create some depth that will eventually pay off. Now that we’re in our final week of rehearsal, it’s really satisfying to see everything start to come together.

TM: You’ve directed a diverse background of plays. Do you prefer working with classic or contemporary scripts?

CC: I don’t know that I have a preference. I’m really excited by language and poetry. I tend to gravitate towards plays that have a sort of heightened language to them, like Shakespeare. I’ve done a lot of Samuel Beckett and some similar playwrights who have a musicality and a heightened reality to their work. There’s different kinds of challenges between doing a modern play and a classical. There’s always some threads of similarities when you start to work on them, but different challenges altogether.

TM: What kind of social commentary do you think this play makes? How do you approach it?

CC: I don’t know that it was intended to have a social commentary at the time it was written. But in a modern reading, there are parts of the play that are difficult to grapple with. One of the main storylines involves a false accusation—challenging a woman’s purity. This results in a public shaming. Her father, at least for a moment, pretty much disowns her. And the rest of the play tries to right that wrong. But in righting the wrong, it’s about proving that she actually is chaste. This situation has a different meaning than it does now.

Slut-shaming is something that’s really prevalent in our society now. It’s something that we’re really conscious about. Rather than thinking about this play as written in a completely different time than ours, I’m curious about finding the ways in which the problems in the play exist in our world now. I’ve set it in the 1940s as a way of giving it a social context that keeps it much closer to us and helps us better understand.

My feeling is that the political and personal spheres in this play are intertwined. In terms of social commentary, I don’t know if it’s necessarily a specific message, but the play is grappling with the problems of pride and jealousy and fear of being vulnerable, and the way we put up walls. And those personal struggles address problems of a society in which not everyone has equal agency. What’s expected of a woman in the world of this play is different than what’s expected of a man. And that’s still the case now.

TM: Could this play be interpreted from a feminist perspective?

CC: I sure hope so. That’s what I’m trying to do. The thing that I’m trying to figure out, and that I’ve been trying to figure out since before rehearsals started, is how to differentiate between how misogyny or patriarchy exist in the world of the play versus what exists in the writing, or what’s problematic in the writing. In the writing, there are choices made about who gets to speak and who gets to react, versus being proactive. This is problematic. Hero, the woman who gets shamed, barely gets to speak. In particular, she barely gets to speak after everything happens. 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 don’t necessarily change the original story, but do 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.

TM: What kind of effect does this production achieve by being set in the 1940s?

CC: The simplistic answer is that it’s a visually beautiful period. It’s about making sense of social contexts in a time where we viewed marriage in a different way than we do now. Also, that was an exciting period for the beginning, or mid-beginning, of the women’s movement. During World War II, women were taking on more jobs while the men were away at war. We see a shift of worlds here.

TM: What message do you want people to take away from Much Ado About Nothing?

CC: I’m hesitant to ever presume that I have the power to give anyone one specific message, because everyone will take away something different. But my greatest hope is that there’s an understanding of the complexity of this story. No single character or experience is painted in black and white. My hope is that the play reflects the tension of being in love, and that vulnerability exists in our lives today.


Much Ado About Nothing premieres at Hart House Theatre on November 4.