MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
Barbican Theatre, London EC2
Opened 18 February, 1998

Let Chris Smith, the culture minister, act now to introduce a system of mandatory fines for directors who impose modish dying-fall codas onto Shakespearean comedies. True, the Royal Shakespeare Company's Much Ado About Nothing has plenty of intriguing variations and inconsistencies of mood, but for director Michael Boyd to elevate these into the entire essence of the play is misguided; Shakespeare is unlikely to appreciate the help.

The wildest excesses of the show's first run at Stratford over a year ago have been curbed Beatrice no longer snaps the cellist's bow in two on her first entrance, the small boy becomes a straightforward comic prop rather than also being a solitary emblem of melancholy right at the end but Boyd's remains a production which seizes on individual characteristics, calls them big ideas and makes them bigger still.  Tom Piper's eye-catching set is entirely subordinated to the hackneyed Shakespearean theme of "seeming", perception versus reality; thus we get the "freezing behind an empty picture frame" game, a couple of oil paintings in various stages of completion, and much frankly bewildering use of a freestanding one-way mirror.

Humour, in this Shakespearean comedy, is a trait to be tacked on. Alex Jennings shows admirably that if left to his own devices he would be a terrific Benedick, but here he is forced to engage in falling-out-of-the-tree slapstick and scuttling around the stage beneath a table. Only Christopher Luscombe's Dogberry is allowed to underplay his verbal howlers and this, one suspects, is less because such affable oafishness happens to be Luscombe's forte and more because it is different from the usual run of Dogberrying.  Siobhan Redmond still seems ill-at-ease as Beatrice, her merry banter always a little brittle; this is more palpable for its contrast to Jennings' supreme assurance opposite her. However, his discomfiture is as nothing compared to Emily Brunt's Hero, who is portrayed as a neurotic chattel, fretfully preoccupied with doing and saying the right thing even as she is wooed by proxy, falsely accused of harlotry and hidden away for dead. (At least such a rendition makes Hero's nervous collapse at the wedding plausible.) Damian Lewis's Don John bellows out his secret delight in his villainy, so that it is a wonder he is not overheard even in the act of hatching his plans.

Yes, Much Ado is a comedy and yes, Boyd gets laughs; yes, the play is streaked with darkness and yes, now and again the laughter stops. It is, though, usual for these facts and responses to be more directly related than is the case here.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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