August 12, 2012, by Peter Kirwan
Much Ado about Nothing (RSC) @ The Courtyard Theatre
If the RSC’s recent production of Julius Caesar was the company’s attempt to “do” a version of Africa with an all-Black British cast, then Iqbal Khan’s new production of Much Ado About Nothing attempts to do the same for India. Both offer problems to my mind in terms of their relation to the rest of the world. Whereas the Globe has played host to a wide range of countries speaking their own language and representing aspects of their own culture (including, relevantly for this production, Arpana from India with All’s Well that Ends Well), the RSC has, in these two productions, brought together British casts presenting versions of Africa and India that are rather more general, a speaking back to an idea of a culture rather than a direct engagement with it. There is, of course, a place for this kind of performance, a representation of the British Indian experience. but I find it difficult to avoid some discomfort at the stereotyping of Indian city life evoked as, during the pre-show, an actor leaned in and asked me if I would “like hotel. Very nice hotel”; this was India as seen by the tourist.
This isn’t to denigrate a production that, for much of its length, offered carnivalesque escapism. One of the pleasures of attending this production was the chance to see the long-dark Courtyard Theatre again. Its foyer was decked out in bicycles and Bollywood posters, and populated by a cast of fruit sellers, rogue traders and bicycle taxis. Noisy and busy, the company attempted to sweep along the matinee audience in the colour and bustle of urban life on the subcontinent. The theatre’s pillars were decorated with fluorescent tubing and fairy lights, and the set was dominated by a huge tree, bedecked with ropes and a swing, standing before a two-storey city house.
The difficulty of the established atmosphere was in the direct contrast to scenes of dialogue. Too often, especially in the first half, the bustle would magically stop in order for a scene to take place, only to instantly resume for the scene changes. The relative quiet of Leonato’s house felt uninvaded by the thriving city life, reducing the evocation of India too often to a simply aesthetic element, a reminder of the place of the play that took too long to become integrated; not helped by the length of time it took for the actors to get up to speed. Speeches were slow and drawn out, the words forced at a pace that felt foreign with the quick clip of the adopted accents.
Happily, by the second half there was a more organic feel to the dialogue, spoken with confidence and at a speed which matched the bustle of the household. The setting worked extremely well; Madhav Sharma’s patriarchal Leonato (apparently struggling with a throat problem that unfortunately turned his speeches into a monotonous coarse roar) strode about his house while a bevy of daughters, cousins and maids attended to food, clothing and decorations. Chetna Pandya’s Margaret was more friend than servant to Amara Karan’s Hero, they and Beatrice giggling together and exchanging longing looks over beautiful saris and new shoes. The household was open to the elements and streets, allowing for the busy traffic that helped make sense of a play where the domestic space is occupied publicly.
Meera Syal and Paul Bhattacharjee as Beatrice and Benedick offered mature, measured readings of the characters that in some ways departed from theatrical tradition. Rather than indulge in physical comedy, particularly in the overhearing scenes, these were two older, sadder individuals passed over by the arranged marriage system that saw Leonato and Shiv Grewal’s Don Pedro bring together the youthful Hero and Claudio. As Benedick listened in to the men, he made his way up a tree and onto the roof of the house simply to hear and avoid being seen; the comedy was instead deferred to the tiny Maid (Anjana Vasan) who first ran after the hidden Benedick to deliver a book, and then acted as a surrogate for him, listening in tearful distress to the men’s tale of Beatrice’s anguish for Benedick. For Beatrice’s scene, meanwhile, Bharti Patel’s Verges (conflated here with Ursula) had a conversation on mobile phone with the offstage Hero while Beatrice hid behind the tree. As Hero began criticising Beatrice, the latter made her presence known to Verges, whose defence of Beatrice was then brilliantly imagined as her attempt to soften Hero’s criticisms.
This scene was particularly important for establishing Syal’s version of Beatrice as a confident and emotional figure, who paused and swallowed deeply before telling the audience of her past liaison with Benedick. When the two finally came together, they sat on the swing together and chatted, laughed, teased gently. Theirs was a quiet romance, unspectacular and sweet. The biggest laughs came from the simple delivery of lines such as Benedick’s “and what’s more, I will go with you”, undercutting the promise of extravagance of the previous line and instead reducing their interaction to a shared joke. The relative slowness of their movement placed confidence in their actions and lent deep feeling to the events of the play’s second half; Beatrice’s grief for her cousin, and Benedick’s sober, threatening challenge to Claudio were among the most believable I’ve seen.
The presence of sunglasses-wearing, red-bereted military police lent an undertone of threat to the offstage action, with Pedro in particular a somewhat volatile man, clearly powerful and mounting an uncomfortably aggressive defence of Claudio in the wedding scene. Gary Pillai’s Don John made less impact, a figure on the sidelines who took pleasure in his earlier setting of tricks but drifted out of the action. More comic impact came from Kulvinder Ghir’s Borachio and Neil D‘Souva’s Conrade, drunken reprobates who were taken by the Watch and drew some of the afternoon’s biggest laughs as they appeared bound together and stripped to the waist, attempting to grovel on the floor but getting in each other’s way.
The Watch, too, acted as a comic inversion of Pedro’s more threatening militia. Wearing assorted kitchen utensils and brandishing water sprays, the actors milked their scenes for all they were worth, scaring themselves by backing into one another and making silly jokes. Simon Nagra was an amusing Dogberry, relying on the text for laughs rather than burying the bad jokes. His puffed-up indignation at being called an “ass” was genuinely amusing, and his presence offered fine comic relief. Yet there did appear to be a more serious point, an inversion of the more authoritarian society that reduced women and old men to tears in the main plot. To see the household servants of Leonato attempting to enact their own forms of justice was perhaps revealing of their own master’s ineffectiveness as he and Antonio (Ernest Ignatius) challenged the young lords.
More serious undercurrents were less the point than the huge set-pieces, however. Niraj Chag’s stunning music found settings for the play’s songs that turned “Sigh no more” first into a comic Bollywood piece giving Vasan’s little servant a chance to indulge in some ridiculous dancing and then into a sad song hummed by Beatrice; while “Pardon, goddess of the night” became an evocative lament, sung from a tower after most of the set was wheeled away to reveal an outdoors backdrop pouring with rain and populated with mourners. The quieter moments were more effective than the louder, which offered an odd hybrid of Bollywood fervour and Western influences. The initial masque was an uncomfortable and discordant watch, featuring women dressed as military police and men in veils and skirts dancing to an aggressive, joyless beat. Much better was the more traditional wedding scene, lavishly decorated and featuring searchlights that bathed Hero and Claudio in a dazzling glow. Claudio and Leonato tussled over ownership of the microphone, Sagar Arya going out of his way to humiliate Hero as publicly as possible.
The final resolution was sweetly played, Hero and Claudio grasping one another and Beatrice and Benedick being subsequently embarrassed by their peers. Curiously, this is the first time I’ve ever seen Leonato speak his line “Peace, I will stop your mouth”, rather than the line being given to Benedick; a decision that worked well given the politics of this particular society, Leonato taking control in passing his niece’s hand to her suitor. Interestingly, however, the play proper ended quietly. Everyone left the stage gradually, leaving Benedick alone to receive, at last, the book that Vasan had been attempting to give him all show. It was left to him to yell for music and summon the rest of the cast back onstage for a lively final dance. Yet there was something fitting in the quietness. As vibrant and colourful as this production was, it always felt to me like colour added to a much more mature, calm story of love and loss, and the play was strongest in its moments of reflection. A fine addition to the World Shakespeare Festival, and (if it happens) a fitting conclusion to the Courtyard’s current incarnation.