Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Theatre Review : Much Ado About Nothing - RSC - Novello Theatre (dir Marianne Elliot 11/12/06)

Much Ado is best described as a Tragicomedy. Certainly, it follows classical comedic lines, with all the couples successfully married off at the end - but it has an exceptionally dark centre. Hero is accused by the prospective bridegroom Claudio of infidelity, and as a result it is believed that she has died. The ongoing battle of wits between Beatrice and Benedict suddenly becomes deadly serious when she asks him to "kill Claudio".

Yet the dark centre is surrounded by a light fondant. Beatrice and Benedict secretly love each other yet fail to realise it. Instead, they joust verbally. In the end, they are tricked by their colleagues into realising their love for each other in a pair of wonderful "overhearing" set-pieces. As Jonathan Bates notes in the program, the title becomes "much ado about noting" in the sense of overhearing.

The challenge for a director of this play is always to reconcile light and dark, to maintain the drama of the play whilst not missing out on the comedy - and at the same time overlooking some of the more ludicrous plotting devices.

Marianne Elliot, rising star in the theatrical firmament, handles this beautifully by playing it straight. The action is transposed to 1950s Cuba, which adds little except an excuse for dressing up in uniform, smoking cigars and sexy Latin-American dance numbers. Nevertheless, it worked - it looked and sounded great. Yet the play itself was strictly as the Bard intended, carried along by two superb performances in the lead roles.

Tamsin Greig is not a conventional beauty, but she radiates a strong, sensuous presence which is perfect for Beatrice. Her timing is razor-sharp, her lines delivered with withering precision. She is an actor who can dominate a stage by moving across it. Joseph Millson, on the other hand, deals in light and dark. He has a great range of tones, when shouting or when sentimental, and a tremendous presence. They complemented each other brilliantly, like few Beatrices and Benedicts do as usually one actor overpowers the other.

They were supported by an excellent cast. Noteworthy were Nicholas Day as a powerful Leonato, Morven Christie as a particularly chaste and beautiful Hero and Adam Rayner as a powerful Claudio.

Personally, I seldom find the clowns in this play funny, but Bette Bourne as Dogberry and Stephen Beard as Verges were particularly good. Dogberry underplayed all his malapropisms whilst Verges was quite brilliant - a camp characterisation from a different age. Couple all the performances with a great cigar-smoke-swathed set, fantastic music and even some OK dance numbers, you have the recipe for a great production.

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