Saturday, 18 August 2012

Theatre review: Much Ado About Nothing (RSC / Courtyard & Noël Coward Theatre)

An Indian regiment returns home after a successful UN peacekeeping mission, in Iqbal Khan's present-day Delhi-set take on Much Ado About Nothing, which takes up home at the RSC's temporary Courtyard Theatre prior to its conversion back to The Other Place. The regiment rests at the wealthy Leonato's (Madhav Sharma) villa. When soldier Claudio (Sagar Arya) falls for Leonato's daughter Hero (Amara Karan,) his Raja Don Pedro (Shiv Grewal) decides to play matchmaker. But Don Pedro's villainous half-brother Don John (Gary Pillai) has plans to break up the young couple for his own amusement. Meanwhile Hero's cousin Beatrice is less than thrilled to see her ex, Benedick, among the party. Despite their protestations that they hate each other, Don Pedro is determined to trick them into falling back in love.

With no other show running in repertory, set designer Tom Piper and sound designer Andrew Franks have been free to take over the whole building, hanging bicycles and rickshaws around the foyer, playing in recorded streets noises to recreate the sights, sounds and (thanks to incense concealed in the bushes on the way in) even some of the smells of Delhi. Over the tannoy, Simon Nagra's Dogberry asks us to turn our mobile phones off before entering the "sanatorium" and once in there the set takes over the whole huge space, lights stream around the galleries and the branches of a tree decorated in lengths of rope reach out right across the ceiling. On the stage itself is a vibrant villa, which when he get to the end of the play reveals a simple change, but the most effective take on the pilgrimage to Hero's "grave" I've seen.

Khan's is a warm, gorgeous, atmospheric Much Ado, although not as funny or unselfconsciously joyful as the play can be. Modernising the action to a present day setting where the treatment of women in the play could still be plausible has worked, and in Amara Karan's Hero especially there's the sense of a wild modern girl trying to break through while still wanting to respect the conventions of her family and culture.

At first Meera Syal's Beatrice seemed worryingly subdued but the casting of Paul Bhattacharjee as Benedick was clearly a masterstroke as their chemistry clicks from the off, and the back-and-forth of insults that characterises their early scenes sparks. The famous scene of the pair being gulled into love has been an excuse for recent productions to try and outdo each other with slapstick setpieces. Khan opts instead to play the scene pretty straight, which is a valid approach and perfectly entertaining in its own right - but after Wanamaker and SRB taking a dip, Tennant and Tate's decorating mishaps and Best/Frederick and Edwards hiding in laundry, this no-frills approach can't help but be a bit underwhelming.

Claudio is the play's most problematic character, and I've only once seen a production manage to make him likeable. This one doesn't try - there's no pretense from the start that Arya's Claudio isn't mainly interested in Hero for her inheritance. It still makes it hard to see their eventual reconciliation as a straightforwardly happy ending, but putting their relationship into a clear framework of arranged marriage and dowries does at least give the plotline a context that makes sense.

Where this production excels is in Dogberry and his ragtag night watch, a subplot that's all too often the low point of any Much Ado. I've seen more duff performances of the role than good ones but Simon Nagra's Dogberry is a joy: Paired with a gender-swapped Verges (Bharti Patel) they're a silly, lovable and ultimately rather dignified couple, Nagra's malapropisms, his determination to do the right thing and genuine upset at the affront to his dignity when Conrade (Neil D'Souza) calls him an ass, all feeling real. If comic business is skimped on a bit elsewhere, it's made up for in these scenes, with a silly visual gag involving Conrade and Borachio (Syal's old Goodness Gracious Me mucker Kulvinder Ghir) that's allowed to run as far as it can, and Rudi Dharmalingam's George Seacole being subjected to a particularly unfortunate indignity by an amusingly drunken Borachio.

I've seen better productions overall but this is a visually arresting (with costumes by Himani Dehlvi) take on the play with a couple of unexpected strengths. It doesn't do everything right, but when it does hit the mark it does so with flying colours.



Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare is booking until the 15th of September at the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon; then from the 24th of September to the 27th of October at the Noël Coward Theatre.

Running time: 3 hours 10 minutes including interval.

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