Monday, 22 May 2006

Much Ado About Nothing - RSC 2006

Much Ado About Nothing 
Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-Upon-Avon, UK.

This RSC production of Much Ado for the Complete Works season is set in Cuba, 1953, where the action takes place in and around a bar.

The performance space of this theatre is surrounded by seating on three sides, with entrances for the actors between and around, giving the audience a feeling of close connection with the play and the players. The stage is set with a rusty telegraph pole and a covering of loose gravel. A one-wheeled moped sits in the entranceway, propped up on a brick. Neon ‘Bar’ signs peep from behind the iron-barred gates and fairy lights twinkle across and around the stage. Chairs are stacked to one side and a large potted shrub sits besides the stairs. Our senses are conflicted: here we have both harshness and indulgence, decay and decadence. Whilst iron bars keep people out, drinking bars welcome people in. The telegraph pole suggests communication (or lack thereof) and the sense of both endings and beginnings.

Directed by Marianne Elliott, this is a sensitive production, which makes obvious the motivations of the characters, as well as playing up the humour to maximum effect.

Fronted by the relatively well-known faces of Tamsin Greig and Joseph Millson (as Beatrice and Benedick), this is a play full of energy that takes off from the very start.

Greig’s Beatrice is not just a sharp tongue: she is a sophisticated and rather sexy lady, with a slight edge of sadness and desperation. She knows how to dance and laugh, how to make others laugh. What she doesn’t know is how to let anyone get close to her. Millson as Benedick is handsome and good-natured with a rolling wit and wonderfully expressive face. The animosity and tension between these two characters is not as pronounced as I have seen in other productions, and yet this understating works perfectly in this setting.

The scenes where Benedick and Beatrice are baited by their friends are perhaps the funniest that I have ever seen. The hiding-places that the characters make use of to listen-in are highly ridiculous, even cartoon-like, and had most of the audience gasping for breath from laughing so hard. Much use is made by Benedick of the potted shrub, drawing every possible joke from his interaction with it. Beatrice manages to get caught and stuck in a variety of places whilst following the conversation between Hero and Ursula. Impeccable comic timing on the part of both Millson and Greig ensure that these scenes are eminently memorable.

We have an attractive young couple in Morven Christie and Adam Rayner as Hero and Claudio, (although Claudio is not as upset as might be hoped at hearing of the death of poor innocent Hero). Amy Brown as Margaret is almost identical to Hero in size and shape, and makes believable the mistaken-identity sub-plot.

Jonny Weir is an extremely sinister Don John, with violence rippling just beneath his surface civility and silence. Patrick Robinson as Don Pedro is not the perfect prince I have seen portrayed elsewhere, but a man returning from his soldierly duties intent on self-gratification. Leon Tanner gives us a marvellously confused Dogberry in charge of an equally inept Watch.

Latino-style music is used throughout the play, along with the atmospheric sound of chirruping cicadas. The revellers, when they enter, are accompanied by an upbeat Latino rhythm, and their masks and dance moves are rather flamboyant and sensual. Balthasar (Yvette Rochester-Duncan), is in this production a voluptuous female nightclub-singer, who flirts with Don Pedro before singing ‘Sigh No More Ladies’ in both English and Spanish: an interesting and agreeable interpretation of the text.

Overall, this is a joyful production: a celebration of liberty, love and laughter. In her RSC debut season, Marianne Elliott has found the right atmosphere and ingredients to create a fresh and noteworthy production that will work its magic on all who see it.

This review was originally published on The Shakespeare Revue.

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