The RSC’s Much Ado About Nothing, part of their World Shakespeare Festival, transports the popular Shakespearean comedy to modern Delhi, where director Iqbal Khan uses an East-meets-West aesthetic, extending from the exquisite and inventive production design to the lively music to playful changes to the script, all serving to embellish the “merry war” between the sexes.
The battle lines are drawn when Don Pedro (Shiv Grewal) and his compatriots, here envisaged as UN troops, come to visit his old friend Leonato (Madhav Sharma) and his family. Without the demands of war, everyone’s focus turns to love. Claudio (Sagar Arya, nicely balancing adolescent ardour and insecurity) quickly falls for Hero (a charming Amara Karan), and Don Pedro agrees to woo her for Claudio, despite much mockery from the marriage-averse Benedick (Paul Bhattacharjee).
The military men are also accompanied by Don Pedro’s “bastard” brother Don John (Gary Pillai, fantastically louche and sulky) who, upon learning of these romantic plans, plots to ruin the match. Don Pedro oversees kinder machinations, determined to make Benedick and the equally love-fearing Beatrice (Meera Syal, by turns delightfully sassy and silly) fall for each other.
The plot relies on fear inherent in a society that judges a woman’s worth by her chastity and a man’s by his power
Both plots succeed. Don John convinces Claudio and Don Pedro that Hero has been “unchaste” and unfaithful, resulting in Hero’s public humiliation at what should have been her wedding. Beatrice and Benedick are equally easily tricked into thinking the other loves them, resulting in Benedick, at Beatrice’s urging, challenging his erstwhile best friend Claudio, and removing himself from Don Pedro’s service. Antics ensue as both plots eventually unravel, ending happily, but not before characters are forced to examine their own quickness of judgment.
Much Ado is a great play to analyze for the cultural politics and anxieties surrounding sex, gender, and purity. The plot relies on fear inherent in a society that judges a woman’s worth by her chastity and a man’s by his power. The men therefore fear being cuckolded (which would show a lack of power over ‘their’ women) while the women fear being rejected (as their value is largely determined by the judgments of men). This is most clearly seen in Benedick and Beatrice’s constant witty banter, both determined not to be foolish enough to make themselves vulnerable to public censure, and defending themselves vociferously with arsenals of clever retorts.
Men and women use wit as a means to mock their own and others’ fears and potential weakness, allowing all seeming equal control. However, when their fears appear to be fulfilled, we see the full expression of the gendered division and the darker side of these sexual politics are revealed: men becoming violent in response to what they see as their own embarrassment and dishonour and women left with no equal defence or recourse other than to hide, wait it out and rely on the protection of more measured and reasonable men.
Khan’s ability to use the updated setting to great advantage in drawing out the modern resonance in the script and finding fresh and new nuance with his actors’ readings of the characters impresses, but unfortunately this makes the flatter moments more noticeable by comparison
Khan is astutely aware of the inequalities present in the text and throws them into sharp focus while still prioritising humour. He makes excellent use of the spectacular and hilarious ensemble actors (Bharti Patel as Verges, Raj Bajaj’s Balthasar and Anjana Vasan’s Maid are particularly brilliant) to flesh out the prejudice present in the play, not just in sex but also in class. In addition to this, Khan also delightfully finds with this modernization an opportunity to use drag and queer moments to add nuance to the gender-based conflict.
During the fancy dress party when the Dons’ schemes begin, Khan opts for the women to throw on the men’s military jackets, while the men parade around (with varying degrees of comfort) in brightly coloured saris and scarves. This enriches the text by giving the actors the chance to exhibit what their characters think of the opposite gender within the set-up and to play with the supposed inversion of agency, the exaggerated gender roles lightly mocking sexism. Khan also captures some of the play’s homoerotic undertones by having Don John be unapologetically intimate with both his underlings Conrade (Neil D’Souza) and Borachio (a charismatic Kulvinder Ghir).
Khan’s ability to use the updated setting to great advantage in drawing out the modern resonance in the script and finding fresh and new nuance with his actors’ readings of the characters impresses, but unfortunately this makes the flatter moments more noticeable by comparison. By and large I loved the set, costume and music design; however, the set piece designed around the funeral scene, while visually stunning, feels completely out of place in the rest of the play. It seems we are suddenly dropped into a late 1990s music video and just as abruptly popped out – curious, given how smoothly the other fun and funky music and dance numbers slid into place.
His ensemble is talented and well used and this is a very watchable play, benefiting from the attention paid to the inequalities drawn out by Shakespeare as well as the comedy inherent in proud people in love
The acting, too, is mostly very good but some of the actors lean on the text, by which I mean it is animatedly recited until they get to the next bit where they feel more confident and could do a bit of acting. In Chetna Pandya I see an entirely new and refreshing Margaret and Simon Nagra’s Dogberry is a complete hoot but Shiv Grewal’s Don Pedro is decidedly unconvincing as a figure of authority and I find Bhattacharjee’s Benedick uneven and not equal to Syal’s amused and passionate Beatrice.
I also notice one or two moments that pretty closely match Kenneth Branagh’s film version. I’m sure one of these is an homage but the others smack of laziness. Any unoriginal acting and awkward staging seems sadly out of place in a version that also includes a spit-take and an ad-libbed “shit” from Beatrice, a subtle, wordless remonstrance of Leonato from Hero at her eventual exculpation and other insightful moments.
Khan’s vision of Much Ado About Nothing is positively invigorating and largely successful. The design and performances are alive with Khan’s many brilliant ideas; I like these so much that I wish he had pushed some of his actors a little harder so this could have been something truly great, instead of merely very good. It certainly has all the necessary raw material.
Much Ado About Nothing is showing at the Noel Coward Theatre in London until 27 October. Photos taken by Ellie Kurttz used with permission.
Katherine works in television production, and directs film and theatre. She is a bit of a Shakespeare snob. Find her on twitter @k8films