Much Ado About Nothing
Royal Shakespeare Company
Noël Coward Theatre
From 24 September 2012 to 27 October 2012
Review by Philip Fisher
Making the most of the spirit of the World Shakespeare Festival 2012, the RSC has followed Greg Doran's African vision of Julius Caesar with this delightful, Bollywood-influenced rendering of Much Ado About Nothing.
Rather than 16th century Italy, the dramas in this production, directed by Iqbal Khan, are played out in contemporary India, primarily in the courtyard of a house owned by Madhav Sharma as the worthy Leonato.
This is the location to which a brigade of dashing UN soldiers have decamped for rest and recuperation from battle, only to find themselves embroiled in warfare of a far more cerebral kind.
The main stories develop around two burgeoning love affairs. Seemingly more straightforward is that between Leonato's shy daughter Hero, played by Amara Karan, and a very handsome, if equally tongue-tied, Claudio, Sagar Arya.
Love may appear at first sight but thanks to the efforts of evil Don John (Gary Pillai), unwittingly aided by Claudio and his brother Don Pedro, Shiv Grewal playing a European prince turned into a Raja, the wedding preparations go badly awry.
The other relationship is the one for which this play is famous, that between Beatrice and Benedick. Meera Syal really comes into her own as the comically sour spinster who will not admit her own love for Paul Battercharjee's dry, somewhat self-effacing admirer. To be fair, Benedick struggles just as much to face up to his own desires.
Some of the production's wittiest scenes are those in which the pair are separately gulled by their respective friends into admitting their mutual admiration and love.
All inevitably comes good in the end although this owes a remarkable amount to a Sikh Dogberry, Simon Nagra, and female Verges, Bharti Patel, who may not be very bright but lead their team of blundering watchpersons on to heroics that eventually foil the path of true malevolence.
In addition to the leading players, all of whom fully contribute to an entrancing three hours, an actress by the name of Anjana Vasan takes the eye in the meagre role of a maid. Indeed, she is such a brilliant natural clown whether moving, dancing or looking wickedly innocent, that there is a real risk that she can take one's attention away from the main performers.
There can be little doubt that this young lady has a sparkling future ahead of her, although one hopes that she will very soon be heading casts rather than running around as a supposedly invisible "spear carrier".
The accents take a little bit of time to sink in but the investment is worthwhile, since the translation of Shakespeare's timeless comedy to the subcontinent creates a new level of enjoyment without losing too much of the original's magic on the trip.
Tom Piper's design and Himani Dhelvi’s costumes are superbly complemented by a six-strong band playing music composed by Niraj Chag. The result is a completely new and very enjoyable experience even for those very familiar with a play that has enjoyed a number of superb productions in London in the last few years.
Anyone with an interest in Indian culture, performance art or Shakespeare would be well advised to rush down to the Noël Coward Theatre and catch this visual and aural joy. Even if you have little interest in any of these subjects, still make the effort. It will undoubtedly prove worthwhile.