December 23, 2006, by Peter Kirwan

Much Ado About Nothing (RSC) @ The Novello Theatre

The RSC’s London Season this year sees the three biggest hits of the first half of the festival- ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ and ‘The Tempest’ coming to the West End. Being the RSC hack I am, and also more seriously out of a desire to see a) how the plays have developed and b) how they’ve been redirected (in the case of ‘Much Ado’ and ‘Antony’) for a traditional proscenium arch theatre, I’m seeing them all again! Last night was the excellent ‘Much Ado’.

It’s still a very funny production, and on the surface very little has changed. Lively, musical (again, much praise to the Cuban band), moving, funny and lucid, it’s one of the few comedies this year that has really made me laugh.

As the play went on, the changes that had occurred in it started to become apparent. Firstly, the comedy was simpler. The actors played up the physical humour, particularly Joseph Millson as Benedick whose Jim Carry-esque rubber-faced antics were very amusing. Dogberry, too, had become less pompous and instead appeared to be trying for laughs based on an increased campness, mincing rather than striding around the stage. Likewise, the cast appeared to be more heavily emphasising the verbal jokes, as if needing to make them more obvious.

The reason for this, I suspect, is the change in audience. A Stratford audience is by and large older and well-seasoned in Shakespeare- a production can assume some familiarity with the text and quite possibly with previous RSC productions of a play. In London, the audience is younger and has access to a much wider range of theatre- and therefore, is likely to be less familiar with individual plays. This is obviously a gross over-simplification of matters, but it may explain why last night’s humour appeared to be laid on with broader brushstrokes than the Stratford incarnation. This is not to say it was any less funny, of course- the sight of Benedick running into a stairwell full speed and knocking himself out was a particular highlight!

A more obvious change occurred in the character of Margaret, who was now brought onstage to hear Borachio’s confession of the plot, and was left alone weeping onstage, to be met by Benedick. In Stratford, Benedick entered to meet a chirpy, skipping Margaret who had a full interchange of wit with him, while here the scene was much abbreviated, showing him attempt to comfort her briefly before she ran off. It was a very nice link, which made sense for the production.

The play lost quite a bit from the change in stage style, particularly in the dance scenes which now felt more like exhibition pieces rather than the in-your-face parties that the intimacy of the Swan permitted. Much use was made of approaches from the back of the theatre, though, and the majority of the action was carried out as previously.

It’s an amazing production, one of the best the RSC has done recently, and I’d thoroughly urge anyone who missed it first time to go see it in London. I admit, I did prefer it in Stratford, but it doesn’t diminish the enjoyment at all, and the bigger theatre means that at least you should be able to get a ticket this time!

Posted in Theatre review