Sunday, 18 December 2016

Review Much Ado About Nothing

Francis Beckett admires a beguiling Benedick and distinctive Don John in the RSC's Much Ado About Nothing but finds the 1918 setting unconvincing

Much Ado About Nothing
by William Shakespeare

Making A Home Fit For A Hero

The decision to set Much Ado About Nothing at the end of the First World War sounds like a good idea, since the play starts with the men returning from war.

But, like a lot of good ideas for making Shakespeare work better for audiences nowadays, it struggles to survive its confrontation with parts of the text. 

There are some splendid things in it, the best of which is Edward Bennett's witty, sardonic Benedick with a touch of self-mockery and impeccable comic timing.

The first scene of raillery between Benedick and Beatrice is very well done, with every ounce of humour extracted from Shakespeare's very clever dialogue.

When hidden Benedick is gulled into believing Beatrice has declared her love for him, it is laugh-out-loud funny. This is achieved by making the best use of Shakespeare's own funny dialogue and building the business round it.

But it's followed by a dreadfully unfunny scene where the comic possibilities are overlooked in which the same happens to Beatrice. And the relaxed, urbane Benedick contrasts strangely with Lisa Dillon's stressed and ambivalent Beatrice.

The clowns don't work at all. Director Christopher Luscombe seems to have taken the view that the words are not especially funny and he needs to extract his laughs by means of rather too forced and over-the-top slapstick. 

Nick Haverson's Dogberry roars out his lines, and does his best to make us laugh by imitating disabilities which are not at all funny. At one point I was left with the impression he was pretending to have Parkinson's Disease.

Any version of Much Ado About Nothing has to address one main problem: How to make believable and acceptable Hero's passive and grateful acceptance back of the fiancé who, on the flimsiest of evidence, so brutally denounced her in public, at the altar on her wedding day.

Indeed I have never seen a production without nurturing a momentary hope she will give his second proposal of marriage a two-word answer, the second word being "off".

The 1918 setting makes this even harder to pull off. It was the year women got the vote in Britain - only women over 30, it is true. 

But, while Britain was still a patriarchal society, women were not handed over to their future husbands by their fathers like cattle in the way Hero is handed to Claudio.

Rebecca Collingwood's charming but passive Hero smiles and simpers her way through the play. There's not much else to be done, it seems to me. Tunji Kasim does his best to make Claudio's stupidity believable.

The villain of the piece, the man who frames Hero, is Don John. I have always thought him one of the most interesting characters in Much Ado About Nothing, and he is here given a World War One injury that requires him to use a crutch.

Sam Alexander plays him quietly and makes him intriguing as well as menacing. But why is his brother Don Pedro played by someone - John Hodgkinson - who seems, though a fine actor, to be easily old enough to be his brother's father? 

There are many good things about this production of one of Shakespeare's best comedies, but there is too much wrong with it to merit more than an amber light.    

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