Deborah Hay as Beatrice and Ben Carlson as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. Courtesy of Stratford Shakespeare Festival.
There’s truth to the testy, inflamed love that defines one of Shakespeare’s wittiest couples—Beatrice and Benedick in the bard’s beloved rom-com Much Ado About Nothing. Just ask the real-life married couple, Canadian actors Ben Carlson and Deborah Hay, who star as feuding lovers in the Stratford Shakespeare Festival production, which opened its 60th anniversary season Monday night.
“We bicker in a different way,” says Hay, laughing, about the onstage pair’s “merry war” of wits. “We’re not using our jobs as a form of therapy!”
Set in steamy Brazil at the turn of the 20th century—a believable stretch from the likewise hot-blooded Sicilians Shakespeare originally created— the sparring mates are tricked into falling for one another in fatefully Shakespearean fashion.
“It’s such a joy to come to work everyday,” says Carlson, a five-year Stratford vet, about working alongside Hay, his acting partner and wife of almost two years. “She’s intelligent, funny—she gets it.”
Carlson, who’s taken on some of Shakespeare’s tragic greats himself—including Hamlet and Macbeth, at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater—is referring to the fierce and fragile spirit that defines Beatrice, which Hay, who’s been at the festival four years, brings to the stage.
Unlike the naïve romance of those other star-crossed lovers, Beatrice and Benedick’s is a sophisticated union, bound up in mutual loathing and quick wit, that slowly degrades into a youthful, merrier affair. “It’s very much real life,” says Hay, referring to the complicated mix of innocent and jaded emotions that makes up the onstage couple’s love-hate relationship.
Though they’ve acted together previously, Much Ado marks their onstage debut as a married couple—in what Carlson deems as exactly the right roles for the two right now. “She’s carefree from the start of the play—a live spirit,” says Hay about her fiery onstage character. “But there’s a greater arc to her journey.”
As for Carlson, who charmed Stratford audiences as John Worthing in the 2009 production of The Importance of Being Earnest, he loves the rapid-fire wit inherent to his latest character—another bachelor, no less.
“They’re a good fit for us,” he says.
Much Ado About Nothing is on now until October 28 at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Tickets are available at stratfordfestival.ca or the box office at 1.800.567.1600.