The Haymarket stage is a blaze of colour in designer Stephen Brimson Lewis's recreation of a Italian village which must have some of the audience thinking wistfully of Mediterranean holidays. But this is no festive atmosphere.
Gregory Doran's production is set in 1930s Sicily and attempts to combine mafioso concepts of family honour with the rise of Fascism as Don Pedro and his men return from Abyssinia. It's an interesting concept and, at times, there appear to be three plays going on simultaneous: a political power struggle between Don Pedro and Don John; a Sicilian play about revenge; and, underneath it all, Shakespeare's original comedy struggling to get out.
But the political emphasis is overdone. When Conrade says to a blackshirted Don John "you have lately stood out against your brother," it's not hard to guess at political conflict between the old aristocracy and the Fascists. But surely by 1936, the Fascists would have mustered enough power to render Don Pedro impotent? It's hard to imagine a prominent Fascist like him would be subjected to any sort of punishment. Nor is it likely that Dogberry's militia would be too keen in arresting fellow blackshirts.
The Sicilian theme is more sure-footed, the tone set from the start when a motorbike dispatch rider delivers a message and pointedly ignores Beatrice and the other women seeking news. Important missives are entrusted to the male heads of the house only. Here Gary Waldhorn's Leonato is not the amiable host often portrayed but rather a man not be wronged. As with his brother Antonio, who pulls a knife on Claudio for slurring his niece. This is a society where both male dominance and family honour are sacrosanct.
For all the sunlight and bright colours, this is a dark production - sometimes literally so, the church scenes are so murky you almost feel the chill of the stone - in which Christopher Benjamin's Dogberry scarcely raises a laugh and many of the jokes go unrecognised.
Fortunately, the leading actors rise above it. Nicholas le Prevost and Harriet Walter make for a competitive Benedick and Beatrice (albeit a slightly older couple than is the custom). Walter is particularly impressive. There's a real anger in the scene after Hero's disgrace - when she asks Benedick to "kill Claudio" you sense the need for vengeance burning in her.
Even more impressive performances are found in the smaller parts, not least the scene-stealing Clive Wood as a sniggeringly camp Don Pedro, a sort of Italianate Larry Grayson, and Stephen Campbell-Moore's Don John whose spiteful malevolence never resorts to pantomime villainy.
However, despite strong acting and some excellent moments, this Much Ado tastes rather antipasto without the main dish - much inspiration, much flair, but strangely unsatisfying.
- Maxwell Cooter
Note: The following FIVE-STAR review dates from May 2002 and this production's original Stratford run.
The RSC has a hit on its hands - a huge hit. Gregory Doran's production of Much Ado About Nothing is simply the best Shakespearean comedy seen in Stratford for many a year. As well as being beautifully acted and very funny, it's also subtle and serious when it needs to be and has a most satisfying depth and complexity. The audience just loves it.
Designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis, the set takes us to Sicily in 1936, with baked terra-cotta walls and a luminous square. Old men sit in the sun, children play and the town band welcomes the soldiers home from Abyssinia. Paul Englishby's music catches the mood perfectly. This is a social milieu in which the play's sexual politics fit well and Beatrice has ample reason to rail against the tyranny of men.
Last seen at Stratford as Lady Macbeth, Harriet Walter shows herself as accomplished at comedy as tragedy and her Beatrice sparkles with wit, invective, beauty and compassion. Nicholas le Prevost looks rather older than most actors when they play Benedick, but he gives excellent value in a compassionate and convincing performance. But what Doran shows us is that Much Ado is about far more than just Beatrice and Benedick.
A major challenge of the play is how to make convincing Claudio's heartless rejection of his bride at the altar. By inserting a mute scene in which he sees a very graphic depiction of her supposed infidelity, Doran makes us more sympathetic to him at that point. But our feelings are ambiguous, for John Hopkins plays Claudio as a much more robust chauvinist than usual. Although his conventionally handsome looks will no doubt please the schoolgirls in the audience, one worries about his future wife's happiness.
Clive Wood is the best Don Pedro I have seen since Albert Finney played the role in 1965. A military man given to occasional flashes of camp hysteria, he is funny, authoritative, exasperating, admirable, complex and sad. It's a mesmerising performance from an actor at the height of his powers. His final lonely exit during the joyful wedding dance at the end wrings the heart and underlines the intricate humanity of the play.
And really that's why Doran's production is so good. Not only it is very funny, but it gives proper weight to the serious side of the play and ensures that the humour is rooted in a rich perception of humanity. The play has the all the weight of a very great comedy and the director holds this in a near-perfect balance. If Doran has ambitions to succeed Adrian Noble as artistic director of the RSC, this production will do his cause no harm whatsoever.
- Robert Hole
Much Ado About Nothing opened at The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, on 9 May 2002 (previews from 30 April) and continues there in repertory until 13 July, and thereafter at the Haymarket Theatre, London.