MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 24th February 2022
This new production of theatre’s greatest rom-com boasts an ‘afro-futuristic’ setting – obviously influenced by Marvel’s Black Panther film! As a world unto itself, this ‘Messina’ works very well. Jemima Robinson’s set design is simple but exotic, futuristic and yet retro. I especially like the little illuminated bulbous plants that border the stage, and the geometric shapes that predominate the setting. This Messina is a bright and colourful place – which is supported by Melissa Simon-Hartman’s glorious costumes with their strong, solid hues and striking silhouettes, marrying African elements with sci-fi kitsch, in an eye-popping cavalcade of outfits. This is a great-looking show.
It also sounds phenomenal, with original music by Femi Temowo, played live by an octet of musicians, including some luscious brass. The jazz/funk/soul/old school R&B-infused score is irresistible and, mercifully, no one raps. Which makes a refreshing change. Album release, please!!
Director Roy Alexander Weise makes the script more accessible to a modern audience by updating some of the more archaic vocabulary. Most of the substitutions hit their mark and get the point across, although uptight purists might squirm.
A strong ensemble cast populates the story of deception and fake news, but any Much Ado is only as good as its Beatrice and Benedick. In the role of Beatrice, the witty wise-cracker, is Akiya Henry, giving a star turn in comedic acting. Her word play is razor sharp and it’s matched by her physical comedy. Henry’s energy is equalled by Luke Wilson as witty wise-cracker Benedick. Wilson exudes warmth in his portrayal; this Benedick is not only a funny man but a good man too, someone you’d like to know and drink with,
Don Pedro is presented here as Don Pedra, a princess. The pedant in me wants to scream ‘Shouldn’t that be Donna Pedra?’ but I don’t, because I don’t want to be ejected. The gender swap allows for a bit of LGBTQ+ inclusivity, which works very well, and Ann Ogbomo is marvellous in the role, embodying a spirit of fun and of (misguided) indignation.
Mohammed Mansaray’s Claudio really comes to life in the church scene, rising to his big moment. It’s hard not to dislike Claudio in subsequent scenes but Mansaray wins us back when he shows Claudio’s devastation upon hearing the consequences of his actions.
Which brings me to Hero, played by Taya Ming, who invests the role with feistiness and fire, reminding us that Hero is a close relative of Beatrice and not the simpering good girl that she is sometimes shown to be.
Kevin N Golding’s Leonato is just about perfect. Golding calls at all the stops on the character’s emotional journey and nails every one. Even though he looks like a Time Lord in a disco wig, he has tears springing to my cynical old eyes more than once.
Also enjoyable are Karen Henthorn’s pompous, Northern Dogberry and the Watch, whose bumbling and malapropisms contrast nicely with the erudite banter of their social ‘betters’. Here the costumes are their most sci-fi comic book, adding to the fun.
As the villain of the piece, Don John the Bastard, Micah Balfour is deliciously anti-social in this party atmosphere. Balfour relishes the nastiness and vindictiveness, and therefore so do we. If only his snazzy boots didn’t squeak so much when he walks!
This is an exuberant, heart-warming, rib-tickling, tear-jerking production of a play that demonstrates that the writer bloody knew what he was doing. Moments of high (and sometimes low) comedy flip and become intense scenes of powerful drama and, like the plotters in the story, Shakespeare makes us fall in love with Beatrice and Benedick. Weise’s direction does a bang-up job of delivering these tonal changes effectively, to create a supremely entertaining piece that packs an emotional wallop or two.
One of the reasons I love Much Ado so much is because it reveals something about the playwright’s character, the unknowable Mr Shakespeare who is absent from his other works. The play shows that without doubt Old Bill was a very witty fellow. You can’t write Beatrice and Benedick if you don’t possess their sense of humour. He must have a been a right hoot at parties.