There is never a shortage of productions of Much Ado About Nothing – and given the strengths of the play, it is not hard to see why audiences, directors and actors are so often drawn to the piece.
Giving the production a contemporary Indian setting could be seen as a radical choice on the part of director Iqbal Khan, but he presents an intelligent and coherent reading of the text that fully justifies his decision. There is a synergy between Shakespeare’s words and the natural rhythms and inflections of Indian speech patterns that makes the text come alive in a new and arresting fashion.
Central to any production has to be the relationship between Benedick and Beatrice and we have had no shortage of high-octane partnerships in recent years. Paul Bhattacharjee and Meera Syal certainly have the potential to shine but they still seem to be somewhat tentative. They share many fine moments (such as their touching attempts at intimacy in Act 5 scene 2) and there is some great detail in their portrayals, but they need to find a greater security for the sparks to really fly.
Amara Karan’s Hero emerges as a more rounded and complex character than in many productions. Her final exchanges with Claudio give a hint that she may not be fully ready to forgive him for his earlier behaviour – and that is an element I have never seen any other actor convey. She is well partnered by Sagar Arya, who gives Claudio the right balance of boyish charm and youthful hot-headedness. Other notable contributions come from the mellifluous Balthasar of Raj Bajaj and Anjana Vasan (a memorable maid in the Benedick ‘gulling’ scene).
The Watch scenes can be the most challenging to get right and Khan’s production has yet to fully exploit their humour. It’s interesting to see Verges played as a more dominant figure than Dogberry, but overall these scenes lack the comedic power, verbally and physically, that I have seen achieved by other companies.
Tom Piper’s set design is, as many have come to expect from him, outstanding – even extending throughout the Courtyard building, which adds greatly to the overall theatricality (and authenticity) of the experience. The sound by Andrew Franks and music by Niraj Chag perfectly enhance the setting and combine to create some of the most effective moments of the production – most memorably with the rain-soaked ‘Pardon Goddess of the Night’ scene towards the end of the second half.
This is a well-considered and consistently entertaining presentation of Much Ado, albeit one that has yet to coalesce fully and catch fire in the way it ought to. At close to 3 hours 15 minutes currently, it also feels somewhat over-extended. A better production will emerge as performances tighten and the production, as a whole, settles.