‘Much Ado About Nothing’ isn’t a play I know particularly well- I’d only seen one student production of it which was fairly good, but certainly hadn’t blown me away. So, I wasn’t expecting great things from the RSC’s new production of it, and I didn’t know any of director Marianne Elliott’s work. I should admit, though, as a big fan of TV’s ‘Green Wing’, I was looking forward to seeing Tamsin Greig onstage, as I knew she could be a very funny actress.
And so, going in cold, I was treated to one of the best productions yet- it absolutely blew me away!
The big thing with this one is the music. I haven’t said much about the music yet in any production, but in this one it really dominated- a full Cuban big band were placed above the stage, underscoring the action and playing big jazz numbers as the audience filed in and out, as well as accompanying the dance scenes.
The production was based in pre-revolutionary Cuba, a setting which was evoked through an impressive use of lighting and sound effects to create sweltering hot days, balmy nights and an effect of rain so realistic that myself and most of the audience thought that it had actually started raining outside the theatre. The production drew you into its world, so much so that you could almost feel the weather.
I don’t even know where to start with the performances. Joseph Millson and Tamsin Greig as Benedick and Beatrice were fantastic, both hysterically funny and shockingly poignant. Greig especially dominated when she was present, a tall and sophisticated woman who said as much with her posture and movements as she did with her words. Millson, on the other hand, was more vulnerable as Benedick, often doubting himself and seeming to take things to heart. The two right from the start seemed a perfect match, and you honestly wanted them to get together.
Any good production, as I hope I’ve said elsewhere, can’t just rely on its leads to carry the play, and the thing that elevated ‘Much Ado’ was its supporting cast. Morven Christie in particular shone as as Hero, a sassier take on her own performance as Juliet in Meckler’s ‘Romeo’- her tactical fluttering of lashes betrayed an innocent heroine who wasn’t quite as innocent as she made out. Patrick Robinson’s prince was broody and a nice balance of nastily manipulative and benevolent, while even smaller roles such as Borachio benefitted from fine actors.
Special mentions must go to Bette Bourne, as a truly surreal Dogberry- suspenders, a mockney accent, camp delivery and a fantastic delivery of the blusterings and malapropisms of the character resulted in a very funny performance that drew applause in its own right. Bourne’s only doing the one play with the RSC, and according to his biography runs his own queer theatre troupe, so it felt like a cameo in the most positive sense of the word, someone brought in to shine in a role often not considered that funny.
At the other end of the scale, Jonny Weir as Don John struck an impressive figure- in one of his early scenes he stood in the lamplight, shirt unbuttoned, smoking a cigarette and speaking in a melancholy voice, every inch the Latin lover turned bitter. He stole his scenes through an almost effortless ability to just, well, look cool! And after his escape, we were treated to a brief glimpse of him striding through the hills, raising his rifle as if in a revolutionary salute- superfluous, but an interesting way to see the character that added a lot of depth.
I haven’t even gone into the wonderfully choreographed over-hearing scenes, the games Elliott plays with the audience’s sympathies (are we rooting for the caddish Claudio and Don Pedro, or do want them punished?), let alone the fantastic Cuban bar set or the almost unspoken subplot of Margaret’s reconciliation with Hero. There was so much going on it was impossible to drink it all in, you just had to sit back and be amazed.
The one last thing I will mention is the loudhailer. I won’t spoil it, but when it’s used, I swear no-one in the audience heard a single line of dialogue for the next five minutes, we were laughing so hard.