What: Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare
Where: Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon
Who: The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC)
When: Viewed week of 14th February to 18th of February (runs until 12th March 2022)
Attempts to evoke some sparks of negativity around the principles of the RSC’s productions do become a little tired. The artistic director of this production spoke of a “racist backlash” to the casting of this play. I cannot speak to this directly but having spoken to various audience members, over the days that I attended the show, nobody seemed to be particularly concerned about the casting although some did have other axes to grind.
Indeed, over the last few years, we have had a black Hamlet, an all-black cast for Julius Caesar and so forth. Occasionally, some of these casting decisions jar with the logic of the text, but otherwise I cannot see why anyone should have a problem. For example, we might stop to consider the instance a few years ago when Iago was played by a black actor and Othello was also played by a black actor. Since Othello is seen as an outsider because he is a black moor, casting Iago in a way that meant the audience could see him as the same kind of ousider rather weakened the plot – especially since Iago’s reasons for hating Othello are amongst the least obvious elements in the plot.
Here, any difficulty seems not to do with the casting of a largely black cast but more to do with the strength, in places, of the performances. However, there is one controversial decision that I would question for a moment – only because, again, it makes understanding the plot unnecessarily complicated. The character “Don Pedro” is changed to “Don Pedra”. Now, firstly, the name makes no sense. “Don” in Italian names shows that the character is regarded as a man and a senior figure in the community at that. Secondly, one of the primary roles of the character is to “flirt” with Hero at the masked ball. Now at various stages in the play, other characters are shown to believe that Don Pedra is to marry Hero and alternatively, that Claudio is to marry Hero. This makes such a melange of the issues of sexuality and gender around the characters of “Don Pedra” and Hero which simply do not belong in the play. The controversies around Hero should lie elsewhere and this deflects our attention.
One of the great strengths of this production are the elaborate costumes which have been designed by Melissa Simon-Hartman. They are colourful and combine with the set design to evoke a futuristic whilst African backdrop to the whole production.
At the same time, this reminds that perhaps there is a feeling that the RSC tries a little too hard with “Much Ado About Nothing” and there is a suggestion that it doesn’t quite know how to approach it. The first production of it I ever saw in Stratford was full of wigs and powdered faces. Since then, there has been a markedly Asian-flavoured production and one that was performed most unconvincingly as “Love’s Labour’s Won” in an attempt not to make the play of that name not a lost play, but one whose alternative title had disappeared into the mists of time:
On that occasion, the play was set in England (I guess) in the Roaring 20s, but as I say the supposed title was all very unconvincing.
Now, this tendency of the RSC to bury this play in too much music or too much costume or too much dance, which is very evident here, does seem to be all a little unnecessary for the play itself can hold the trump cards. Indeed, the scenes which feature Dogberry (the local constable, here played by Karen Henthorn) and his/her associates, Verges, Seacole and Oatcake (played by Toyedin Ayedun-Alase, Rebecca Banatvala, and Aruna Jalloh respectively) are of the kind of stuff which will have an audience sitting up and eating out of your hand, and here they are carried off so well – especially by the actors playing Dogberry and Seacole but their companions are no slouches either.
There are times in this production, though when beneath the many layers of singing, dancing and even the excellent costumes and staging you are reminded that there is a Shakespeare play screaming “let me out” and it never quite achieves it- or at least not for long periods. Indeed some of the singing is so poor it is hard to know what to make of it. Benedick’s singing scene is played for its comedic value. However, the mourning scene needs added harmonies to cover and help the weakness of Mohammed Mansaray’s voice (the actor paying Claudio).
In the positive column, we must mention Luke Wilson, the actor playing Benedick, who took on that role at such short notice when the advertised lead quit. He is still growing in that part but he is doing so with aplomb.
The production also provides a great outlet for the talents of Taya Ming as Hero, and Akiya Henry as Beatrice. In many ways, they are where the core strengths of this production lie.
So, controversial comments? I do not know. I have not seen or heard any but I have read the comments of those who have mentioned them. Controversial developments? Certainly. Recovering from a lead actor leaving the production without much notice is never going to be easy and perhaps it has happened once too often at the RSC in recent years. Should you go see it? If you want a bright and colourful night out at the theatre, you could do worse, especially if you’re not a overly pernickety Shakespeare diehard.
We must note that in the RSC’s ongoing battle to modernise society’s outlook by twists and turns in its productions and casting, is fighting a losing battle. I attended during this week and it is evident that the audience remains white and middle class. Now, there’s an issue which might be better addressed in the London theatres.