Much Ado About Nothing
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
This was the first time I had seen a professional production of Much Ado About Nothing. I have only seen an outdoor theatre production by the all male Festival Players Company. Despite my lack of experience of this play, I was excited about seeing this play put into an Indian setting. To get an idea of the conceptions behind the production I also went to see a talk by the director, Iqbal Khan.
If I would rank this against the authentic African Julius Caesar, and Rupert Gould's stylish The Merchant of "Las Vegas" then I would put this production in between. The production does very well in establishing an authentic Much Ado that is set in India. When setting out to direct this production, Iqbal was hesitant in setting this play in India, because he did not want to show an historic India, or India as is typically perceived. What he wanted was a production that gave a raw, livid, contemporary, and authentic commentary.
Before the production even starts you see a community of citizens working and socialising, as the sounds of an Indian city swirl around them. Even a large piece of awning that hung above the stage was taken down (which I think would have been a relief for those in the top most theatre balcony). During the interval the citizens are then preparing the wedding by bringing on a platform and hanging some drapes above the stage. I also like the fact that whilst this was going on the lighting grows dark to show the passing of the day.
During the production there were moments when cast members would bring objects on and off long before the scene ended, making the scenes alive with activity without being distracting. Iqbal also had the wedding scene set in a public area, in order to make Hero's disgrace a harder blow for her. He himself saw a public wedding when he went to India for research, and thought it was both kitsch, vibrant, vulgar, and generous (something which he thinks Shakespeare is). Indeed during the wedding the cast made the audience feel involved, and when the humiliation came it was painful to watch (in a good way).
Iqbal Khal also preferred productions that resonate, rather than aesthetic productions, and indeed the Indian style does not take over unless when it is necessary. When it is necessary, such as during the party and wedding scenes, the stage became awash with colour, a band at the back of the stage played some fantastic pieces of Indian music, and occasionally the cast would start a vibrant dance sequence. On occasions characters would start singing a song and the colourful lighting would come on when nothing was going on to suggest that this was needed. I did wonder whether this lighting was needed in such a simple scene, unless this was meant to be an Indian dramatic device.
The cast members gave some fine performances as the main characters. Meera Syal was a firm Beatrice who, as Iqbal said, acted as a mother figure in formal clothing next to the spoilt Hero. She spoke her witty lines, when making fun of Benedick, with feistiness. Benedick was seen as a man who was defined by his military career and wit. Yet in front of women he was inexperienced, as if he was a child, and for this Beatrice punishes him. Paul Bhattacharjee certainly puffed up with pride yet loses his nerve after Beatrice insults him during the party. After listening to Claudio and Don Pedro play a trick on him he starts to lighten up, gives big gestures and his voice wavers on a high pitch at times. During the trick scene it was very nice to watch him climb up the set without being noticed. On the other hand Beatrice's trick scene was an odd one, during which Hero stood off stage and conversed with Ursula onstage via mobile phone, during which Beatrice appeared to Ursula to closely listen in on the conversation.
Amara Karan portrayed Hero as an indulgent daughter, making her childlike and playful to watch. Sagar Arya was at first a nervous Claudio but resolutely announced Hero's dishonesty to everyone. The watch came on wearing household items and overreacted to every command made by Dogberry and every sound they heared whilst on guard. If there was one performance I did not like it would be Gary Pillai as Don John. I do not expect Don John to come on twirling a moustache and announcing that he was the villain, but this actor’s performance could have been anybody.
Iqbal said that he likes actors to make different choices to create some interesting ideas, whilst challenging concepts the RSC, and he himself, may have about the production. This approach was quite apparent in this production because the cast managed to provide some interesting moments. For one, the supporting actors would join in such moments. The best example would be the girl that is sent by Benedick to bring his book to the Orchard, who is given an extended role during the trick scene. At times, the cast would break the fourth wall and act directly to the audience. There was even an incident when the aforementioned awning was being taken down, during which one of the cables swung around and brushed against an audience member, to which an actor shouted to the person in charge of the cable to stop hitting the audience.
The overall set looked very good. There is a house at the back with some nicely detailed Indian architecture. A balcony and a set of stairs are connected to the theatre's balconies, allowing for some neat entrances and exits. The stage floor is basically tiled and there is also a bare tree in front of the house, with ropes draping around the branches. The Courtyard has been converted to a street in Dubai, with painted walls and flooring, some objects that reflect India, whilst some bicycles are hung from the ceiling. As well as the colourful lighting, rope lights were strewn around the balconies and were lit up during the wedding scene.
This Indian production was both well done and very entertaining. The actors put together some interesting moments whilst making every effort to establish an authentic Indian Much Ado About Nothing. They occasionally interacted with the audience and performed some vibrant dance sequences and songs. This is worth a low Top Price