Theatre Director Ronan Phelan tells Culture why Rough Magic's new production of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, is set in a deluxe mobile home on the Irish coast and how women hold the power in this production, in advance of the play’s premiere at Kilkenny Arts Festival this August.

There’s a Garth Brooks song called Papa Loved Mama about an adulterous wife and her trucker husband, who the lyrics describe as a ‘gud’un’ but ‘a jealous type’. It’s when Brooks reaches the chorus that we get the culmination of the song’s narrative:

Papa Loved Mama,

Mama Loved Men,

Mama’s in the Graveyard,

Papa’s in the Pen.

It’s the exuberant jauntiness of the music here that really gets me. The unquestioning inevitability of his violence; the idea that his wife’s death is part of the natural order of things. At the same time, it’s catchy, it’s playful, like the best country music. The song went to #3 in the Billboard Country Chart and the album from which it’s taken, Ropin’ the Wind, sold 10 million copies.

Papa Loved Mama is one of the songs that we’ll be featuring in our production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing during the Kilkenny Arts Festival 2019. It’s a production that will be full of country music; songs by Hank Williams, The Dixie Chicks and Dolly Parton amongst others. Much Ado has always been a holiday play, about a group of friends and family coming together to celebrate a homecoming. For our production, we’ve set the play in a deluxe mobile home on the Irish coast, where people have assembled for a week-long party, with dancing, cocktails, and playful flirtation. When the party gets out of hand, there’s a moment of violence that reveals the somewhat darker truth – the power struggles, the gender expectations, the misogyny – underneath.

Ultimately, Much Ado is set in a man’s world. Traditionally, Hero and Beatrice are the only female characters of note. Men may have held all official positions of power when the play was written, in 1598, but that’s not necessarily the case nowadays. So I wanted more women in the play and better parts for them. And of course it is just as plausible for a women to be the head of a family as a man – particularly in Ireland. So I decided to take the step of switching the gender of one of the main characters, the older figure in the play, father to Hero and uncle to Beatrice. In our production, Leonato becomes Leonata, played by Clare Barrett.

Leonata is the matriarch of the play, but she’s not necessarily a feminist hero. Leonata is a comprised, complex character. She lives in a misogynistic world, and she colludes in it too. Although she loves her daughter, she wants her to fulfill the expectations of the men in the play. She desperately wants her to get married, and when her daughter’s character is slandered, her mother sides with the men. There’s a complexity here, but it’s the complexity of real life; that all of us can subscribe to an ideology that oppresses us.

The decision to use country music is a really personal choice for me. It's a part of my childhood, my family; it’s the soundtrack of the holidays we used to take when I was young.

I’d argue that, of Shakespeare’s comedies, Much Ado About Nothing is the one with the most contemporary resonance. It’s a play about gender roles and expectations, yes, but it’s also a play about love, and more importantly, it’s a play that takes love seriously. Because it’s sceptical about it, if that makes sense. It’s a play that makes clear that there are no guarantees in love – you can never be certain of the other person, or that you won't get hurt.

Lots of the characters in Much Ado are scared of being betrayed, being made to look foolish. They’re afraid they won’t measure up to the roles they hold in society. And they avoid examining these neuroses by partying- an impulse that is very easy to identify with. They drink a lot, they dance, they crack jokes, they change the subject. They try really hard to impress upon themselves and others that they’re sorted. And the partying is lots of fun; this is a play that’s full of exuberance and joy. But it’s both light and dark. There's a vein of inquiry in it too – like it's testing love, wanting to know if it can be believed. It’s a play that puts a lot of pressure on the idea of love. As a result, when love happens, it’s something hard won, and true. And I wanted the music to reflect that. Country music is often about deception, and betrayal, but it’s founded on an idea of love. I think there’s an interesting tension in this, something we’ve been able to explore and subvert.

Clare Barrett in Much Ado About Nothing

The decision to use country music is a really personal choice for me. It’s a part of my childhood, my family; it’s the soundtrack of the holidays we used to take when I was young. My extended family would get together, rent mobile homes on the Irish coast, make barbeques and listen to country music. I should say, I have really happy memories of these times, and such affection for so many of these songs – but it has always struck me how their lyrics are rooted in a really conservative view of gender relationships. In country music, women are women and men are men. Each have their own roles and they are only rewarded when they stick to them.

Growing up as a gay kid in an Ireland that wasn’t – back then at least – very hospitable to queer identity, you acquire an ear for this kind of thing. So for me country music does two things in Much Ado: it’s the sound of so many Irish holidays, and parties; it’s playful and irreverent, but it also has this more problematic aspect.

Therefore, when it came to putting on Much Ado – a play that’s obsessed with gender roles and expectations – I thought country music just seemed right.

And the play is also really funny, which is always good.

Rough Magic’s Much Ado About Nothing premieres at Kilkenny Arts Festival 2019 from August 8 - 17, before touring from Nov 9 - 22 - find out more here