MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
Courtyard Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 31st July, 2012
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Courtyard Theatre, mothballed for a while, is back in business with this vibrant and colourful production of Shakespeare’s quintessential romantic comedy. Director Iqbal Khan sets the play in present-day India, a relocation that works very well – on the face of it. Issues of chastity and arranged marriages are at the heart of the conflict, and the caste system provides a ready-made underclass of servants and messengers other relocations have to struggle to accommodate.
There is an amusing pre-show as you settle into your seat – once you’ve dodged the washing lines in the aisles and there are more bicycles than in a chain of Irish pubs – and as soon as the play proper begins, the inflection and cadence of the Indian accents works very well with Shakespeare’s prose (and the verse too, in the dramatic scenes).
Madhav Sharma is a dignified but warm-hearted Leonato who opens his house to a troop of soldiers on their return from a victory in war. Paul Bhattacharjee’s Benedick is likeable enough although I couldn’t get past his resemblance to the young Boris Karloff. The joke about his name (“Bendy Dick”) is perhaps a little overused. Kulvinder Ghir’s Borachio, coarse, vulgar henchman to the baddie, is an earthy characterisation. He is driven by his appetites and pisses like a racehorse. I’m not even joking. Villain of the piece is a brooding Gary Pillai as Don John the Bastard, setting himself apart from the verbal exuberance of the rest of this society and manipulating events towards tragedy. There is a hint of Yul Brynner and Lex Luthor about him (he’s bald, is what I’m trying to convey).
Big name draw, Meera Syal is perfectly cast as the sparky, witty Beatrice, wise-cracking but with an undercurrent of sadness and perhaps loneliness. She is elegant but fragile; her wise-cracks form a protective shield. She is not quite matched by Bhattacharjee’s Benedick but you still root for the pair to get together.
Where the production stumbles is with the physical comedy. The scenes in which Benedick and then Beatrice overhear about their supposed love for each other don’t realise their potential. In the first, there is too much of a little servant girl trying to hand the hiding Benedick the book he requested. In the second, the gossip is relayed by the loudspeaker of a mobile phone, robbing the conspirators of interaction and eye-contact. And why “Ursula” has been usurped by Verges, the supposedly elderly partner in the play’s cop duo, I don’t know.
The scenes with the Watch try to upstage the wonderful comic interplay of the script with some unfocussed and raucous ‘business’ out of keeping with the generally civilised conduct of the rest. I liked Simon Nagra’s Dogberry but mostly because he provides a lot of amusement in the pre-show.
At one point – the wedding scene – members of the audience are pulled up to sit on cushions. All well and good if they don’t sit there grinning as the drama unfolds. I found them a distraction from the main action.
On the whole though, it is an entertaining evening with Shakespeare’s dazzling script outshining everything. The look and sound of the piece is evocative and it was rather hot in the auditorium. All that was lacking was the aroma of cooked spices… I compensated for this oversight after the performance by directing my feet to the nearby Thespian’s Indian restaurant.