The second part of an initially disappointing double bill (with Love’s Labours Lost), Much Ado About Nothing is a return to form for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Working with considerably better material and displaying greater comic invention as a result, the cast and creative team have crafted a quick-witted confection which more than justifies its limited West End run.
Whilst it is no secret that Much Ado About Nothing presents more potential as a text to directors, the performance of the two plays in tandem yields additional resonance for the sequel, thanks to director Christopher Luscombe’s intelligent choices for doubling. In some cases, these draw clear parallels across the plays – so Rosaline and Berowne become Beatrice and Benedick, and their union a welcome resolution for both productions. But the doubling also functions in the reverse, so that some characters disappear altogether. Things are the same, but changed, and the use of the same setting suffuses the show with a sad nostalgia and remembrance of happier times. When Friar Francis (Jamie Newall) claims “what we have we prize not to the worth whiles we enjoy it”, we project a past, and a longing for the past, based on the actor’s previous role as Boyet. Having spent so much time with these characters, one cannot help being imaginatively invested in them and their reincarnated counterparts.
Furthermore, the period setting is more satisfyingly implemented here than in Love’s Labours Lost. World War One has considerable cultural capital for us as a nation, and as a context it serves to flesh-out motivations and backstories. The jubilant, postwar atmosphere provides a fitting context for Claudio’s hasty, whirlwind romance. Elsewhere, Sam Alexander’s wan and lame Don Jon is understandably bitter, the only broken soldier of the war, and his search for revenge a reaction to the injustices he has endured. His pact with the profiteering footman Borachio (an excellent Chris Nayak) teases out a subtlety both within the play and in the production – here, it is Borachio who emerges as the principle plotter, motivated by a class antagonism made the more significant considering Nayak’s minor role as a silent butler in the first part. Unfortunately, the implications of the postwar motif largely dissipate after the first half.
The play is chock-full of creative comic license, with Edward Bennett especially letting rip as Benedick. Bennett’s chemistry with the audience is spot-on, and results in sublime moments of clowning (especially in the excellent eavesdropping scenes). His challenge to Claudio, often sidelined in less detailed productions, becomes here a real crisis of character. Equally, Lisa Dillon is a satisfying and sensitive Beatrice, hiding her fear of submission behind a cracked mask of jollity. Nick Haverson’s Dogberry, meanwhile, is a walking catastrophe on the verge of a breakdown, inspiring hilarity and pathos in a sublime scene set in his tiny constabulary.
Too many of the frustrations of the first part are carried over to this production, however. Nigel Hess’ saccharine score too often drowns moments that would have benefited from allowing the actors space for silence. The set is magnificent, but the possibilities afford by the sliding truck and substage track too little explored. One transition – a sobbing Leonato receding slowly into the darkness – displays the invention which is otherwise lacking despite such a potent device.
You are unlikely to see a more solid, and enjoyable, Much Ado About Nothing – and the play benefits from its partnered production. However, as with Love’s Labours Lost, I wish that this production had been braver. This year has seen so many innovative and vibrant stagings of Shakespeare – just look at Emma Rice’s tenure at the Globe, or Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female company in residency at the King’s Cross Theatre – or even the RSC’s own multimedia The Tempest. Whilst this Much Ado About Nothing received critical acclaim when first staged in 2014, I cannot help but feel that theatre, and the world, have moved on.
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