All the best productions of Much Ado – Zeffirelli’s Sicilian extravaganza at the National, Rachel Kavanaugh’s “Dad’s Army” version in Regent’s Park – create a resonating social canvas of soldiers on leave and love in the air, and Marianne Elliott’s beautiful, pungent RSC revival is no exception. Set in 1950s Cuba, before Fidel Castro, the design is no trite “concept” but a liberating, inspirational relocation.
Lez Brotherston’s South American setting has wrought iron balconies, grey distempered walls, peeling ceilings and a samba band setting a hot temperature from the off. It is all a bit like Evita, and indeed Jonny Weir’s impressively unhappy, bearded Don John is a malcontent radical who plays his dirty tricks and disappears, you feel, to become someone not dissimilar to Che Guevara.
His brother, the prince Don Pedro (Patrick Robinson) rules this Messina with a rod of iron, though authority has crumbled a bit along the line, as Bette Bourne’s magnificently debauched, semi-comatose Dogberry proves; the master of the watch is some weird mistress of the night, with a Bill Fraser-style corrupted Cockney accent, a poodle hair-style, a smear of lipstick and a liquor-sodden drawl. His every move, or lurch, is shadowed by Steven Beard’s sad little Verges, a neutered apparatchik trapped inside his master’s grotesque incompetence.
But of course Much Ado stands or falls by its Beatrice and Benedick, and here the RSC has come up trumps by importing the delightful Tamsin Greig from The Green Wing on television and matching her with Joseph Millson, a notably handsome rising star in the company. When Greig’s Beatrice brutally commands Millson to come into dinner through a megaphone, he will not be put off his self-deceiving conclusions: “There’s a double meaning in that.” All the big laughs are in place.
Those central duping scenes have to be done with freshness and spirit beyond hitting the right notes. Millson plays his to perfection, while Greig, “running like a lapwing” across the front of the stalls, sets off a motorbike horn, scrabbles about beneath a bench and finally stands dumbstruck at evidence of Benedick’s devotion. She is absolutely hilarious, and both she and Millson are sexy, attractive beasts at the onset of early middle age, adding poignancy to their denials of being in love.
False evidence of Hero’s alleged impurity is the counterbalancing dark side of the comedy and these scenes in the church, where Adam Rayner’s impassioned Claudio denounces Morven Christie’s translucent Hero, are beautifully done. The reconciliations include a show of Madonna masks, a deflation of Leonato’s (Nicholas Day) rage and grief and a swirling company dance that must be as enjoyable to perform as it is to watch. You can feel the audience going wild with delight.
The production was seen in the Swan in Stratford-upon-Avon earlier this year, but the transposition to the proscenium stage works perfectly well. Neil Austin’s lighting and Olly Fox’s music are important components of a joyous evening, one that is only available to the London public, alas, for a scandalously short time.
- Michael Coveney
Note: The following FIVE-STAR review dates from May 2006 and this production's earlier Stratford run.
The RSC Complete Works season finally bursts into glorious technicolour with Much Ado About Nothing, which, remarkably, in the hands of director Marianne Elliott, eclipses Gregory Doran's landmark production at the Swan three years ago.
The decision to set the play in 1950s Cuba, while in truth shedding little light, generates kilowatts aplenty, not least in some terrific communal Latinate cavorting, which, as performed by a crack cast, is utterly irresistible.
It is one of those productions which is so right in so many respects. My only cavil is that even the best efforts of Bette Bourne and Elliott cannot give the kiss of life to the wretched Dogberry who remains irredeemably unfunny.
But to harp, or even Harpo on this - this Dogberry has more than something of the vaudevillian about him - would be unfair. True, as performed by Bourne, this business seems to belong to another play, but the production is blessed with as fine a Benedick and Beatrice as you'll be fortunate to find.
Joseph Millson, a star in the recent Spanish Golden Age season, is simply sublime as Benedick, utterly in control of his material and conveying bewilderment and offended dignity like no one else. Happily, he is brilliantly partnered by Tamsin Greig (best known from TV's Black Books and Green Wing) whose need for love is buried deep under bomb-proof armour-plating.
It is said that a cynic is a disappointed romantic and what emerges from this production, as with Doran's revelatory The Taming of the Shrew a few years ago, is that the cynicism of Beatrice and Benedick is a front, masking, a fear of love and commitment, on Benedick's part, and a mixture of vulnerability and defiance of societal expectations on that of Beatrice.
What the production also brings out, through the character of Hero, is the way women are forced into roles and robbed of any self-autonomy; because Beatrice will not be a pawn, she must, perforce, be a shrew. This is underlined by the apparently benevolent manipulations of self-appointed puppetmaster Don Pedro, played by the fine Patrick Robinson.
Nicholas Day shines as a passionate Leonato, as does, literally, the stunning set by Lez Brotherston, a wonderful mixture of neon lights and decayed grandeur. Tribute, too, to composer Olly Fox and the musicians. Unmissable.
- Pete Wood