Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Opened 16 January, 2007
The first part of Roy Williams' 90-minute triptych is quite, quite brilliant. The playwright begins his RSC-commissioned "response" to Much Ado About Nothing on a Friday night in Anytown, England, with the lads and ladettes out to get bladdered, get laid and get shirty. The respective groups are led by Ben and Trish, every bit as quick-tongued as Shakespeare's Benedick and Beatrice but fully warranting the "strong language" warning notice posted at the door of the Swan. Jamie and Hannah (alias Claudio and Hero)'s burgeoning romance is threatened by a malicious rumour, but set right again with the help of the local constables. The glory is not that of Bardic craft, but of a universal story brought to immediate, contemporary life and revealing sensitivity and beauty even amid the alcohol-fuelled vomiting, steel-gated club doorways and burger stands on Lizzie Clachan's promenade set.

Where Shakespeare's young men have just returned from an easily won war, Ben and Jamie are about to leave for a far knottier one. The second act begins with a video letter home from Ben, but soon finds him and two comrades pinned down in an alley in Basra after a twitchy Ben had "pre-emptively" opened fire, killing some Iraqi boys who had been playing football. We enter Full Metal Jacket territory, seeing how individuals survive in, conflict with or are corroded by the demands of war for efficient components in a military machine and no more.

Phase three, back home: a war-toughened Jamie is about to stand trial for torture, and Hannah is trying to find a path for herself between him, Trish, her family and friends. This ought to be the most trenchant section of all, showing as it does how the anger, loss and incomprehension of war can shape the lives even of those half a world away. But I'm afraid the writing loses flow and focus just when it should tighten. Director Maria Aberg's staging finds a little more use for the promenade set-up than in the Basra episode; nevertheless, as we gather round a chalked square on the floor into and out of which characters step for their intercut arguments with Hannah (Claire-Louise Cordwell), it resembles an in-progress workshop production more than a finished RSC offering. A sad and frustrating falling-off after a magnificent beginning, but I would love to see Williams finish shaping it into what it could be.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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