Much Ado about Nothing

Royal Shakespeare Theatre

It was wonderful to be back in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre for live theatre. We had decided to book tickets at the back of the circle for a change: not a great idea. The sight lines are not good. My view of the stage was partly obscured by a pillar and we couldn’t see the top of the set because of the overhang from the upper circle. Disappointing.

There was quite a lot of hoo ha on social media about the production before it opened. Let’s get rid of some of the lies put forward by those wanting to attack the production and parade their racism. It is not an all black cast. I couldn’t find any evidence either for it being set in what social media called a futuristic African society.

Jemima Robinson’s wonderful set is abstract. It reminded me in terms of its aims of the design for a production of Pericles by Ultz several decades ago at Stratford East. There are references to many early twentieth century artists. The abstract flowers and trees in the garden are quite wonderful and right from the beginning a yellow wheelbarrow is propped up against the side of stage left so you wonder what on earth that is going to be about. It takes until almost half way through the performance to understand what it’s for. There are references to the cosmos in the set design, too.

Melissa Simon-Hartman’s costumes are incredible – wildly imaginative, often quite funny, featuring lots of bright colours, a huge range of materials, lots of gold and costumes and headgear made out of a deconstructed haystack. Several actors had lots of costume changes so visually the play was full of surprises and delights.

I thought that the production was aimed at people who didn’t know the play or at least who didn’t know it very well. Much of it was delivered very slowly, so slowly that if you knew some of the text by heart it did your head in while you were listening to it. It did mine in anyway. Some actors broke the text up into phrases and even individual words, emphasising each one. There were also quite a lot of dances which took up time but didn’t advance the plot.

What was good, though, was that there was some linguistic awareness, providing amusement for the modern, particularly young, audience as they recognised the dirty jokes and therefore listened carefully.

Some of the nonsense of recent RSC productions had disappeared. There wasn’t any racial blindness, age blindness, disability blindness or any of that obtrusive and pointless gimmickry which has spoilt my enjoyment of the text. Don Pedro was played by a woman, Ann Ogbomo, becoming Don Pedra. I couldn’t quite work out why. Was it because director Roy Alexander Weise wanted to downplay Shakespeare’s whole after war context or because he wanted to introduce some trendy non-binary interest when Don Pedra is wooing Hero for Claudio?

At this early performance it wasn’t always easy to hear what actors were saying, particularly when they were facing upstage. Let’s hope this improves as the run goes on.

There were some wonderful performances. Akiya Henry as Beatrice has more energy and dynamism than you could have guessed would be possible. Luke Wilson was excellent as Benedick, all the more impressive as he was taking over the role at one day’s notice, having originally been cast as understudy for Benedick. It was a pleasure that these two worked so well together, but there was one performance that I was not expecting.

My heart usually sinks when it comes to the scenes with the Watch. Not so here. I thought Karen Henthorn was the best Dogberry of the thirty or so I have seen. She brought a freshness and believability to every line and movement. Nothing was overdone. A joy to watch.

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