Much Ado About Nothing
SHAKESPEARE’S belief that nobody but nobody is immune to the sudden, unexpected onset of love is tested admirably in Roy Alexander Weise’s hugely enjoyable production.
Even the most determined singletons can be knocked sideways into love by the right person and the right circumstances. And the timelessness of such an assertion will work equally well decades from now and thousands of miles away from home. Cue the futuresque, mildly bonkers setting for this non-stop, full-on, if slightly overlong romp.
In some ways this is a production led by its costumes, designed by Melissa Simon-Hartman. We’re somewhere in Africa at some time in the future and everything has been turned up. There is more colour than ever even by African standards – including handy basic colours for character identification – and the styles have just gone off the scale. Traditional fabrics kitted out with bizarre ornaments, flowing gowns mixed with disco puffball shorts, elaborate headgear mixed with fabulous metre-high hairstyles.
The mere act of wearing such unworldly garb brings out a similar physicality in the company and there is a distinct whiff of TV science fiction about some of the larger set-piece scenes. In the haunting fake-funeral scene the costumes of the watchers, complete with the glowing orbs which run throughout as symbolic souls, become the set, providing a backdrop for the graveside party appearing almost in silhouette.
Femi Temowo’s thumping musical score sets the tone from the off. The brave new future this may be but the household’s record collection is still founded on the soul and funk of the seventies. Amid this distinctly late night groove there are genuinely affecting moments shifting the Bard’s original verses into soul songs or graveside laments. Most are successful, although even Osibisa would have struggled shoe-horning Hey Nonny into a vinyl classic.
Much Ado always lives or dies on the performances of – and chemistry between – its pairing of Beatrice and Benedick. And there is much to be enjoyed in this couple. As the feisty, razor sharp daughter Akiya Henry is at the top of her game from start to finish. No cultural reference from Beyonce to Fresh Prince is left unmilked and the high energy input yields a high return. Opposite her Luke Watson’s Benedick suffers a little from a slow start but goes on the impress hugely. Given the circumstances of having to step in at late notice this is a performance and a pairing which will only grow as the production matures.
It’s a strong company throughout although it must be said that the watch scenes, so often the providers of easy comedy, never really sparkle as much as the bizarre costumes and the juxtaposition of Yorkshire imbecility suggest they might. But as ensemble pieces go this holds together well with no jarring tones to speak of.
The casting of this production displeasingly triggered unwanted comment on social media which catapulted it from the arts section to the news pages and necessitated swift action from the RSC. That casting, it has to be said, doesn’t appear to have been made with any particular artist or political point in mind, it just works for the tone of the show and never once crosses the mind.
There is a separate debate brought to the surface by Much Ado about the value placed by men on a woman’s reputation and, crucially, the inability of women to even have a say in this, let alone do anything about it. It’s an underlying question which keeps the play above being just a farcical set of practical jokes and wind-ups.
And it’s here that the production could stand one tiny but significant piece of tightening. In the midst of vehemently decrying not being a man when it comes to avenging her cousin’s demise, Beatrice throws in the cheapest of audience-acknowledging asides.
In a moment any semblance of a seriousness below the comedy is lost. Knowing when not to go for the laugh is a vital part of the complexion of any successful comedy. Cutting that, and a handful of cheap sex references and gestures even the school trip teenagers would have cringed at, would give this massively fun extravaganza something of a more solid base.