MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING or LOVE’S LABOUR’S WON
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 29th October, 2014
I’m not convinced by the idea that Much Ado is a companion piece to Love’s Labour’s Lost (also currently playing in a top-notch production) – there is a difference in quality to the writing that suggests to me that LLL is a preliminary sketch for the masterpiece of romantic comedy that was to follow. That said, the pairing of these productions works superbly: Simon Higlett’s sumptuous Downton Abbey set (based on real-life stately home Charlecote Park) gets a second airing and the cast reappear, this time post-WWI, to delight us anew, their warmth and conviviality all the cosier in a bright, wintery setting.
In short: this is the most enjoyable production I have seen at the RSC for a long time. It is an unalloyed joy. Even when a technical hitch with the scenery stops the show for several minutes, it is treated with good humour and patience – the audience has so much love for the production by this point, I suspect a fire alarm would not have dinted our enjoyment.
Edward Bennett and Michelle Terry dazzle as Benedick and Beatrice who, though arguably the sub-plot, are the undeniable stars. Their delivery is spot on, spouting Shakespeare’s funniest barbs with the precision of a marksman. Anyone who tells you Shakespearean comedy is not funny has never seen Much Ado. Bennett has some ludicrous business with a curtain and a Christmas tree, while Terry is not above casting herself to the floor in mockery. But there is real heart to the couple. They ‘speak poignards’ and sometimes the words stab at your heart. It’s laugh-out-loud stuff that also makes you misty-eyed and warmed of cockle, and a firework display of wit and wordplay by William Shakespeare.
They are supported by an excellent company. John Hodgkinson’s affable Don Pedro has an easy gravitas and gregarious nature, while his brother Don John (whose soubriquet ‘The Bastard’ has been excised from the text) is a pent-up mass of resentment, a powder keg of malevolence, chillingly portrayed by Sam Alexander. David Horovitch is a strong Leonato, cut to the quick by false allegations, and Thomas Wheatley rises to the moment as his brother Antonio, driven to speak out against ‘fashion-monging boys’. Flora Spencer-Longhurst is romantic heroine Hero, bringing credibility to the difficult thwarted-wedding scene, when Hero is mainly silent in the face of vile accusations. Frances McNamee lends a touch of Mrs Doyle (ah, go on, go on, go on) to Ursula the maid and I warmed to Chris Nayak’s Brummie Borachio. Tunji Kasim impresses as the young Count Claudio, led astray by the villain’s lies. Nick Haverson’s Dogberry is full of tics to go along with his malapropisms but I do think director Christopher Luscombe took a wrong turn by setting the examination scene in an overcrowded kitchen: the script is funny enough without complicated comic business, although the scene did stop the show – literally!
Nigel Hess’s marvellous music is the icing on this Christmas cake, played live by an unseen band under the direction of John Woolf. It’s all in keeping with the music of the period – unlike some other productions where an anachronistic soundtrack serves only to alienate.
Much Ado is one of my favourite plays and so I approach every new production with trepidation – I don’t want to see it ruined. With this production it is apparent in seconds flat that we are in not only safe but expert hands, and I can sit back and wallow in the play’s brilliance, presented here in such an agreeable and sublimely entertaining fashion.