Review: Much Ado about Nothing RSC, mirth and matter

Much Ado About Nothing is another engaging, intelligent play from one of my favourite directors, Christopher Luscombe. See it as part of a matched pair with the gorgeous Love’s Labour’s Lost, or as a standalone but do see it.

Shakespeare and audiences have taken a battering from a number of recent productions where concept became the tail that wagged the dog, so it was a real pleasure to see another RSC offering that respects language and remembers the play’s the thing.

The WWI setting feels entirely natural. It worked wonders for Love’s Labour and adds particular poignancy to Much Ado, one of Shakespeare’s best-loved and most frequently staged plays. Heroine and hero Beatrice and Benedick are dream parts snapping, snarling and sizzling their way to the altar, in a format mimicked by a legion of Rom-Com couples, Jane Austen through to Richard Curtis and beyond.

Bittersweet ripples through any Much Ado but Lisa Dillon’s reading  of Beatrice is as tart as a bramley apple. She may say she is made to talk all mirth and no matter but her heart has been broken by Benedict and the cracks are livid. Her brave face fools no-one and the merry war is often too raw to be merry.

But there is plenty of merriment in the ingenious physical humour and the eavesdropping scene, with the Christmas tree, induced the kind of belly laughs that verge on suffocation.

Edward Bennett’s Benedick is a delight, comfortably in my top three with Kenneth Branagh (Renaissance Theatre production with Samantha Bond-my favourite Beatrice joint with Emma Thompson) and with Simon Russell-Beale at the National. Apologies to fellow David Tennant fans but he goes in at number four because the production was just too gimmicky, albeit lots of fun.

I make this my seventh Much Ado if I don’t count the gorgeous Kenneth Branagh film, a version that is very hard to beat. The current version, at Theatre Royal Haymarket until March 18, is certainly one of the very best and is the most innovative stage production I have seen.

The War setting offers pathos for the taking, no more so that in Nick Haverson’s Dogberry; physical and verbal humour “Dost thou not suspect my place? dost thou not suspect my years?” dissolves into tears as it becomes apparent his tics are the result of shell-shock.

This is the RSC so, of course, all of the actors are fabulous but I shall put in a special word for Sam Alexander as Don John. Alexander is never less than brilliant and here he makes sense of a part that has puzzled many great actors and Keanu Reeves. Alexander’s Don John is really, really mean; some people are.

He is also not without pain, riven with jealousy towards his brother Don Pedro, for my money the biggest villain in Shakespeare along with the odious Claudio for their repugnant treatment of Hero.

As ever Luscombe tips the audience from comedy into tragedy and back a gift that makes his Twelfth Night for the RSC next season a must see. In the meantime, by the way, his Nell Gwynn is touring and if you didn’t catch it at The Globe or in the West End, track it down -it’s another joy.

After a bumpy year with theatre in 2016, I seem to be on a roll in 2017. Staging wise Much Ado is one of the best looking shows around with music that lingers. If you need to introduce a teenager to Shakespeare, look no further.

Here is entertainment that occupies the little grey cells with lots to discuss after: “Kill Claudio!”– Form an orderly queue.

PS You can probably score tickets at the TKTS half-price booth in Leicester Square because Theatre Royal Haymarket is massive!

 

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