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Much Ado about Nothing

William Shakespeare
Royal Shakespeare Company
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

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Luke Wilson (Benedick), Micah Balfour (Don John), Mohammed Mansaray (Claudio), DK Fashola (Friar) and Taya Ming (Hero) Credit: Ikin Yum, RSC
Akiya Henry (Beatrice) and Luke Wilson (Benedick) Credit: Ikin Yum, RSC
Mohammed Mansaray (Claudio), Kevin N Golding (Leonato) and Taya Ming (Hero) Credit: Ikin Yum, RSC
Taya Ming (Hero) Credit: Ikin Yum, RSC
Akiya Henry (Beatrice) Credit: Ikin Yum, RSC

This dazzling, bold production of one of Shakespeare’s most instantly appealing comedies certainly offers plenty of visual excitement with its way-out Afro-futuristic costumes by Melissa Simon-Hartman and Jemima Robinson sets. If Flash Gordon had kids, they’d love the giant playpen that Robinson creates on stage.

The cast is largely black and you can see Simon-Hartman’s Trinidadian / Ghanaian roots in the explosion of her designs, that draw inspiration also from the Notting Hill carnival and her work with Beyoncé.

Composer Femi Temowo provides music to match, a lively mix of reggae, jazz and hip-hop, and midway through the first half it seemed more as if we were watching a pop video than a piece of theatre.

Movement director DK Fashola—who also appears as the Friar—is similarly eclectic with the choreography, that includes elements of disco, ritual and even a few moves that could come from a Maori haka.

Akiya Henry is an ebullient Beatrice, with an irresistible, mocking laugh, and Luke Wilson, who stepped up to the role of Benedick less than a fortnight ago, lets his natural exuberance and improvisational mischief flow in those short set-piece speeches that never fail to win an audience.

Mohammed Mansaray and Taya Ming bring out subtleties in the characters of the other couple, Claudio and Hero, and Ann Ogbomo dips into most of the colours in the emotional palette as a gender-swapped Don Pedra. Kevin N Golding finds a perfect rhythm for Leonato and Karen Henthorn memorably turns Dogberry into a Hylda Baker comic turn. The diction of the highly talented cast of mostly young actors is impeccable throughout.

But sadly, the individual performances do not compensate for a lack of depth in director Roy Alexander Weise’s production, which fails to get to the heart of the piece. It’s as if the design has overwhelmed due concentration on the words: punchlines are missed, laughs don’t come where they should.

Key moments fall flat. There is little sense of shock at Claudio’s rejection of Hero nor of miraculous wonder at her supposed resurrection. At the end, this surely ill-matched couple just wander off like and Jill and Joe headed for the Register Office.

And while that relationship, which holds the greatest dramatic tension of the play, is too little examined, the romantic turning-point, when Benedick overhears that Beatrice loves him, is tossed away. It’s as if this ardent Sicilian gave a Noël Coward "Oh, really?"

Earlier, Benedick, Claudio and Don Pedra had made their appearance by abseiling dramatically onto the stage like caped comic-book heroes. It was a great effect. If only as much attention had been given to the play.

Reviewer: Colin Davison