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RSC Stratford review: Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing, RSC, Stratford, to March 12.

Review by Charles Barker

The much-loved Shakespeare comedy has been given a striking makeover and in some ways, the makeover is the star of the show. But…we’ll come back to that later.

The play is good, rollicking fun, as it should be with all its twists and turns and misunderstandings. And the mostly young cast do a fine job keeping the plot bowling along. Akiya Henry is a standout as Beatrice – a real livewire performance that brings the waspish character brilliantly to life. And full marks to Luke Wilson who started as understudy for the role of Benedick but has made it his own.

The plot is simple enough, and centres on two couples. It’s a will-they-won’t-they-get-together story that’s now a romcom staple, but this is Shakespeare, and nothing is as straightforward as it seems.

As he wrote elsewhere, the course of true love never did run smooth. It runs far from smooth here and although (spoiler alert) everything turns out well at the end, along the way questions are raised about male-female relationships, about friendships and even about the corrosive effects of fake news – in this case, a malicious lie that drives a wedge between one of the couples.

Fun it is, but back to that striking makeover.

It all looks fabulous and deliciously over the top, but at the same time, slightly odd. The set appears futuristic but really creates a garishly neon-lit, sub-tropical feel. And then the backdrop has what seems to be a series of pyramids in silhouette.

Most of the cast are decked out in what could be taken to be lavish ceremonial robes from some ancient civilisation – there’s an abundance of gold on display and extravagant headdresses. Some of the costumes are works of art in themselves. It’s certainly visually stunning.

But what’s it all for? It doesn’t seem to add much to the understanding of the play. And at the same time, a couple of basics misfire. The music is intrusive and the volume could be turned down a notch or two, but the sound level from the stage could be turned up, or made more consistent, to stop bits of dialogue getting lost – doubly unfortunate in a play in which clever puns and wordplay are so central.

That may all be being over-picky. What’s certain is that this is a show you can sit back, wallow in, and enjoy. The packed house certainly did.

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