The Royal Shakespeare Company’s now-annual winter West End residency opened at the Novello Theatre last week (13 December, previews from 7 December) with Marianne Elliott’s 1950s Cuba-set production of Much Ado About Nothing, which was seen in rep at Stratford’s Swan Theatre from May to October (See News, 25 Aug 2006), starring Tamsin Greig and Joseph Millson as warring lovers Beatrice and Benedick.
Also in the cast are Jonny Weir as Don John, Patrick Robinson as Don Pedro, Bette Bourne as Dogberry, Steven Beard as Verges, Adam Rayner as Claudio, Morven Christie as Hero and Nicholas Day as Leonato. The production continues until 6 January 2007, when it’s followed by the RSC productions of Antony and Cleopatra and The Tempest, both with Patrick Stewart.
First night critics felt that this Much Ado has transferred well from Stratford to the London stage, and all were impressed with the performances of the central duo, who they described as not only a great comedy act, but a strong pair capable of conveying the pain of rejection as well as the joy of passion. While some reviewers loved the Cuban setting and felt it added to the heat at the core of the play, others found it pointless and were unconvinced by Elliot’s decision to relocate the comedy from Sicily.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (4 stars) - “Much Ado stands or falls by its Beatrice and Benedick, and here the RSC has come up trumps…. 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…. 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.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (3 stars) – “Thank heavens for Tamsin Greig! Her tight-skirted, melancholic Beatrice, who has left more than one flush of youth gracefully behind, is just the kind of cool woman to deliver winning shots in a sex-war. Her tongue serves as a sharp weapon in the battle of the sexes. It leaves Joseph Millson's pretty-boy Benedick, who basks in a perpetually extended adolescence, verbally mauled and reeling. Greig's performance has become the striking, saving grace of Marianne Elliott's spectacular, protracted production, set for no discernible military or political reason in Cuba 1953…. Salsa band music, an over-long masked dance-party, an atmosphere generated by cigar-smoking, boozy soldiers home from battle and elements of knock-about farce, all distract us from wondering when the Cuban aspect will assume relevance. It never does…. Nowadays directors emphasise Much Ado's tragic potential. Elliott accentuates the farcical, rather diminishes the serious…. This Much Ado opts for belly laughs rather than wit or pathos.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (4 stars) – “Elliott… creates a sexy southern sultriness in this joyous Cuban-based Much Ado…. One notices the awe, in this Fifties Batista dictatorship, with which Patrick Robinson's sternly militaristic Don Pedro is treated. Equally, it is moving to see how Morven Christie's wronged Hero finally flinches under the touch of the father who, in his rage, has wished her dead. But the play depends on the interaction between Beatrice and Benedick and here it is in perfect hands. Tamsin Greig's Beatrice starts as an Eve Arden type who delights in her ability to crack wise. She is also deliriously funny…. But Greig also shows how Beatrice's adamantine self-regard finally yields to the claims of passion. Joseph Millson is an equally fine Benedick…. Bette Bourne's sozzled, epicene Dogberry has matured since Stratford and there is good support from Jonny Weir as a darkly taciturn Don John and Nicholas Day…. But the joy of Elliott's production lies in its ability to capture the ecstasy at the heart of Shakespearean comedy, and my only serious complaint is that this magnificent production is on view for a month when it should be running for a year.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph – “After the disappointment of Merry Wives - The Musical, the RSC picks itself up, dusts itself down, and launches its London season in the West End with Marianne Elliott's tremendous Much Ado …. Elliott… brings an almost novelistic detail and richness to a comedy that in lesser hands can seem merely brittle and artificial…. It has also given Olly Fox the opportunity to write the most enjoyable theatrical score of the year, with an ace on-stage band playing deliciously blowsy old-time Cuban music…. Tamsin Greig and Joseph Millson…. constantly strike sparks off each other, creating an electric atmosphere in which elaborately defensive verbal sparring gradually gives way to a glorious glow of love…. Neither actor is conventional hero or heroine material. Millson initially seems both slobbish and gauche, while Greig is all sharp angularity and contempt, with a hint of the embittered spinster about her…. Hilarity gives way to the wonder of romance. And the gags are a joy…. There are many happy touches of classic Hollywood screwball comedy in this production…. Elliott also ensures that the subplot, in which Beatrice's cousin Hero is brutally rejected at her own wedding and accused of being a whore, is played absolutely for real, bringing a truly tragic edge to the piece…. There isn't a single weak link in a production that gloriously combines sparkling wit and emotional depth.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (3 stars) – “This is a maddening production: silly at times yet hugely intelligent, miscalculated in places yet excellent at the centre. I’ve seen wittier Beatrices and Benedicks than Tamsin Greig and Joseph Millson…. but none who seethed and boiled more forcefully. From the first you’re aware that Millson is protesting far too much when he denounces marriage and, impelled by her insults and his own frustration, gets seriously angry at her. As for Greig, she’s tough, independent, and so packed with emotion both thwarted and aggressive…. There’s an equally rare electricity between these two. But then the doubts begin. Claudio is callow and callous, but he’s surely not Adam Rayner’s version of the character: the sort of mean, insolent monster you might have found, complete with dark glasses, in Batista’s secret police or torture chambers. This makes nonsense of an ending in which he repents and is happily re-accepted as a husband by Hero, in Morven Christie’s touching performance an unusually young, vulnerable and likeable girl…. Overall, there’s more good than bad egg here for any curate to eat.”
- by Caroline Ansdell