Much Ado About Nothing at the RSC – review
Roy Alexander Weise directs Shakespeare's comedy
If you didn't know that an understudy had stepped into one of Shakespeare's best-loved roles with just a few days' notice in this shiny new RSC production, there's no way you'd be able to tell. But Michael Balogun, who was set to star as Benedick opposite Akiya Henry's Beatrice, pulled out due to otherwise unexplained unforeseen circumstances just a few days before opening, and Luke Wilson was up.
Wilson's is one of several notably impressive performances in director Roy Alexander Weise's predominantly non-white production, set in an indeterminate African country and shot through with an R'n'B score courtesy of Femi Temowo and a cracking eight-piece live band. Wilson is comfortably easy in the role, ranging capably from returning war hero to lovesick wise-cracker and delivering a memorable RSC debut.
Henry matches him in presence and spark, and their scenes together are among the high points of the show, each giving no quarter in their sharp-witted quarrelling with a soft-hearted centre. And Ann Ogbomo makes much more of a gender-swapped Don Pedra than the Bard probably anticipated, creating a rounded, commanding character far nearer the centre of the action than is often allowed.
The big talking point – courageous understudies aside – is the look of the production. Set designer Jemima Robinson and costume designer Melissa Simon-Hartman have a field day, offering a riot of colour and atmosphere around which everything else appears to have been built. From plastic outfits to outrageous wigs, stylised abstract topiary to Pythonesque imagery, it's all eye-poppingly spectacular, cartoonishly vivid and joyously over-the-top.
But – and there is a significant but – putting so much emphasis on the overall look and Afrofuturist style of the production eventually comes at the expense of the storytelling. Moments of breathtaking drama and emotional poignancy are sacrificed to the aesthetic, so that the rise and fall of the narrative flattens into a single – albeit vibrant – monotone which becomes hard to sustain.
Weise's direction doesn't help: cumbersome parts of the set and elements of extraordinary costume, such as a giant fountain or oversized epaulettes, too often obscure the action, while far too much is played way upstage, almost in line with the proscenium arch, which simply wastes the restored thrust that gives this auditorium its unique intimacy.
There's plenty of crowd-pleasing entertainment and quirky fun here to mark the return of live Shakespeare to Stratford after almost two years, even if the Dogberry subplot involving yokel constables remains stubbornly unfunny. But that's hardly the fault of this company or this production. You can chalk that one up to Mr Shakespeare himself…