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Friday, 10 August 2012

Review - Much Ado About Nothing

By Zoe Apostolides

The Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Until 15 September

Noël Coward Theatre, London
24 September - 27 October

What’s immediately obvious, as one steps into the Courtyard’s foyer, is the bustle and energy so important to a play which pivots upon the effects of eavesdropping, rumour, and - as suggested by the title - ‘noting’ that which is so often misheard or misunderstood. Making my way through to the stalls, I caught snippets of conversation, lines of speech, all removed from their context and therefore meaningless to me, and was brought back to this experience time and again as it was mirrored on the stage. The blare of car-horns, the screech of wheels, and the shouts of street-sellers welcome audiences into a chaotic vibrancy which challenges us to attempt to drown it out or to ignore it. The cast directly calls its audience to witness, constructing the set amidst the incoherent chitchat before the action, as it were, has even begun. The RSC have transplanted modern-day Delhi onto its boards as neatly as the characters in Shakespeare’s play transform the inconsequential into life-changing dramas, and boy, is it worth the journey.

Wary of focussing exclusively on Tom Piper’s set design, I will admit it did initially make me a little suspicious of elaborate attempts to hide inadequacies within the production itself and, for the most part, such fears were completely unnecessary. Iqbal Khan’s interpretation bubbles over with life, hysterically hyperbolic yet managing to convey and retain the quieter subtleties of the text. As with Two Gents and As You Like It, Much Ado is a comedy which leaves much forebodingly unanswered: as the two pairs of lovers walk happily into the sunset, the tears and troubles of three short scenes ago clamour for attention, and Khan insists we recognise such ambiguities within Shakespeare’s text.

Amara Karan was a particularly impressive Hero, bringing forth the character’s inevitable obedience and submission, yet also her outspoken and eager nature - a novel exploration. Karan manages to embody the problems of engineered love and the necessity for female chastity, which make this particular play so fitted to its setting. Paul Bhattacharjee also works well as the lad-about-town Benedick, shunning society’s compulsion to find him a suitable bride whilst hinting that he is, in fact, all too aware that his beloved is right before his eyes. Beatrice has no such insight: Meera Syal works fantastically as a sort of Indian Emma Woodhouse, a formidable sasstress whose banter seems set to tip over into insult at every pacy exchange with Bhattacharjee. Syal brings to Beatrice - undeniably one of the most difficult Shakespearean roles - a thoughtfulness and interiority; her claim that “there was a star danced, and under that was I born”, seems at odds with moments in which this vivacity was lost to Hero’s dilemma which, though it may be given more textual time is much more a sub-plot to the passionate B’n’B fusion we’re all waiting for. The deepening of this most central relationship is nonetheless affectionately portrayed as the couple swing from the branch of a tree entwined with cables and electrical wires, spinning themselves deeper into the net that eventually enmeshes the entire cast.

My only real criticism of the production stems from a very occasional clumsiness through over-emphasised puns or gestures; there’s a sense that with each production the company as a whole will jel more fluidly. Many critics have similarly complained of the play’s lengthy second half (the whole running at three hours and fifteen minutes), and yet the directorial decision to leave the text unedited reflects the very nature of Much Ado itself: a complete refusal to find resolution, and a tedious portrayal of, to borrow from the novelist Donna Tartt, ‘the extravagance of tricks’. This not a comfortable work, it is as awkward in execution as it is in content, and it relies on the complicity of discomfort in its audience. The courtship of Hero and Claudius has been marred by false accusation, and the final scene offers only the glimmers of a relationship enjoyed by Beatrice and Benedick. Such contrasts are wonderfully elicited by the frequent musical interludes from the on-stage live band, setting a pitch-perfect mood of jubilation or menace: whichever is called for.

There were moments I found myself wondering what Will would’ve made of it all, and can well imagine him appreciating both the rip-roaring humour of this piece, before calling at times for a bit of quiet. Perhaps that’s the essence of Much Ado; if so, Khan’s offering to the 2012 World Shakespeare Festival brings just that - the world, and its noise, chaos, bustle, sadness and humour- to Stratford.

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