Friday, 03 February 2017

Much Ado About Nothing

There is much to enjoy in the RSC's latest production of Shakespeare’s look at the complications of love

Written by Georgina Brown

Shakespeare’s captivating ‘merry war of wit’, about two dedicated singletons suddenly and unexpectedly finding love, can be a delight. Or a nightmare. Mark Rylance’s incompetent revival three years ago, with Vanessa Redgrave’s weather- beaten beatrice in breeches and James Earl Jones’s benedick gobbling or gabbling the few words they could recall, was a particular low point in my theatre-going life. But, as a critic, one travels hopefully. And this week, I got lucky.

Much of the success of Christopher Luscombe’s beautifully performed production comes from creating a genuine world on the stage. His inspired idea is to set it within a stately home (a replica of the gorgeous rosy-bricked Charlecote Park not far from Stratford, where Shakespeare was once caught poaching) which has been requisitioned as an armyGeorgina-Brown-colour-176 hospital. Lisa Dillon’s Beatrice is a sharp-featured, sharper-witted, starchily- aproned nurse; Edward Bennett’s Benedick a dashing soldier, happy to be the butt of jokes in the mess.

The time jumps to Christmas 1918, and with the war over, parties resume in the big house and love is in the air with Hero and Claudio engaged to be married. If not for superficially blokey Benedick who swears he will live ‘a bachelor’, nor for brittle Beatrice who, once bitten is twice shy, though hiding her vulnerability beneath a carapace of cheerful indifference.

The setting works a treat, not least by providing the inexplicably sour Don John with an excuse for his bitter, killjoy attitude – a crippling war-wound.

The thick branches of the Christmas tree make the perfect hiding place for Benedick to hear his friends gull him in to believing Beatrice is wild about him. Beatrice pretends to polish the stained glass window above the grand entrance door in order to overhear her friends discuss how passionately Benedick adores her.

A dazzling Dillon and bravura Bennett spar and spat and spit like Amanda and Elyot in Noël Coward’s Private lives, deceiving themselves and one another about their feelings – but not us – and fall truly, madly, deeply in love.

No sooner have the pair kissed than tragedy strikes and Beatrice, never one to do anything by halves, demands that Benedick proves his devotion to her by agreeing to kill the man who jilts her friend, Hero, at the altar. The comic – and tragic – timing throughout is spot on. Seldom have the play’s slapstick scenes, with the verbally confused local bobby, Dogberry (he says ‘comprehend’ when he means ‘apprehend’, ‘odorous’ when he means ‘odious’), been funnier. And then there’s the music. Rousing, patriotic military marches, then ‘come live with me and be my love,’ to a dance tune that could well be Cole Porter. Heart-warming theatre.

Until 18 March at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London SW1: 020-7930 8800, 

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