You know how you wait two years for a bus and then three all come along at once? This is the fate of Much Ado About Nothing for 2022. Not only has it been chosen as the opening “Big Play” for the RSC at the beginning of the year, but there’s also a production by Simon Godwin coming at the National Theatre this summer and in September we’re seeing a production by Robert Hastie at the Crucible in Sheffield. But then it is an enduringly popular play and there’ll always be a demand for it.
Michael Balogun, who was originally cast as Benedick, withdrew from the play days before Press Night which has played a spot of havoc with the timings for its reviews. But if we have learned nothing else from the pandemic, it’s that the show must go on. And there’s no doubt about it, it’s a fascinating production. If you are a loyal reader of my random jottings, you’ll know that one of my watchwords is that I much prefer a brave failure to a lazy success. And this is one of those occasions. Yes, for the most part, this production fails to deliver on many levels. But, my word, does it put in a brave attempt to do so, and does it have a lot of fun getting there!
Set in some kind of futuristic otherworld, traditionally this play takes place in Messina, but this dramatis personae has been no nearer Italy than an outer space Pizza Express. This is a world of glowing orbs, fanciful fruits, swirly benches and magic blackboards. No extravagance is understated in the set or the costumes, with outrageous headdresses, topiaried hairdos, gold-emblazoned tabards, a Robocop-style constabulary and formal white wellies. Hero’s wedding dress resembles a huge butterfly, while Beatrice frequently reminds you that the spirit of Xena Warrior Princess is not dead. Facial make-up includes enough glitter, swirls and highlights to make Adam Ant look like a funeral director. Characters appear descending from the Flies or via a floral walkway. It’s as though Shakespeare has been taken over by The Magic Roundabout with Ermyntrude and Zebedee as the bickering lovers.
Done wrong, this could look cheap, tacky and ridiculous. But it’s a huge credit to Jemima Robinson’s set and Melissa Simon-Hartman’s costume design that it comes across as innovative, luxurious and aspirational. Imagine going on holiday to this futuristic playground – you’d be on a permanent high! Femi Temowo’s accompanying music is cleverly pitched, near-outrageous, and frequently off-putting; a kind of louche jazz that suggests a whole new notational language of music that we don’t recognise yet. You’d expect magic mushrooms in the saxophone and amphetamines in the keyboard, and it’s simply, thoroughly, delightfully and disconcertingly weird.
There are also some terrific performances, none more so than Akiya Henry’s irrepressible Beatrice, who gives us one hilariously cantankerous appearance after another, chockfull of inventive characterisations, impetuous mischief and some brilliant physical comic business. The best scene in the whole play is where, separately, both Benedick and Beatrice overhear how the other is apparently in love with them; and Ms Henry’s contortions to hide behind or blend in with the set’s outrageously stylised vegetation so she can’t be noticed is comedy genius. By comparison, Luke Wilson’s Benedick comes across as an unusually decent sort of chap, rather reasonable and sensible. As a result perhaps there aren’t quite as many fireworks set off in the interchanges between the two characters, but at least Benedick is a beacon of sobriety in an otherwise hippy-trippy world.
Ann Ogbomo is also outstanding as Don Pedra (minor quibble, but shouldn’t she be a Donna?) with tremendous stage presence and a gloriously authoritative voice that commands you listen and pay attention. Micah Balfour is also excellent as the manipulating Don John, and Taya Ming also impresses as a rather childlike and fragile Hero. Karen Henthorn plays the difficult role of Dogberry purely for laughs and gives us some excellent malapropisms.
Wasn’t it Shakespeare who said – and I think it was – the play’s the thing? And that, sadly, is where this production starts to fall apart. In his vision for the play, director Roy Alexander Weise has turned all his attention to the look of the thing, but not much thought has gone into its meaning. The futuristic otherworld is beautifully realised, but what light does it shed on, say, the motivations of Don John, or the common sense of Claudio, let alone whether Benedick and Beatrice have a future together? The bright façade of the production has seeped through to the plot, making almost all the characters much more lightweight and shallower. There’s little sense of the danger or tragedy that lurks beneath the surface because it’s all just a bit too nice and bland.
It also bumbles and stumbles along at a very slow pace, and at three-and-a-quarter hours feels way too long. The second half in particular gets very boring at times, and feels very stop-starty with the plot progression; you feel the occasional urge to mutter just get on with it, rather than stop for another bit of music and sombre standing around. Scene changes need to be more dynamic – Act One ends with a whimper rather than a bang and no one has a clue whether to applaud or not; the movement of the actors needs to be more decisive and meaningfull; in fact, the whole thing just needs to be a lot snappier.
Definitely a brave failure rather than a lazy success. I hope the RSC keeps the set and costumes and uses them to much more telling effect in another play. Much Ado About Nothing continues at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 12th March.
Production photos by Ikin Yum