“For man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion”
Transferring into the Noël Coward theatre, Iqbal Khan sets his RSC production of Much Ado About Nothing in modern-day Delhi, as a fitting counterpart to the African-dictator-led take on Julius Caesar which is now touring the UK after its London run. It’s a lengthy take on the play which does little by way of apparent editing, which is mighty impressive given the strength of the vision here, but it turns out the commonalities with contemporary India make this a great (arranged) marriage which is full of interesting scene readings which make this an intellectual, as well as visceral, pleasure.
I found lots of to love, but particularly what had been done with the watch scenes, normally something tolerated with gritted teeth. Here, they are a group of social misfits, almost Napoleon Dynamite-inspired and it really really works, mainly because of the straightness of the bat with which the actors play it. We’re always laughing with, and not at them and they’re never played as stupid – in fact, something rather touching emerges from their determination of purpose. Niraj Chag’s music is also something wondrous to behold. Vivid, sensuous, powerful, it richly enhances the whole production and the six musicians who play throughout the show get a well-deserved bow at the end.
Syal’s Beatrice has quite the melancholy heart which makes her a rather emotive figure from the outset – she refuses wedding proposals with a resigned kindness, her pseudo-motherly relationship with Amara Khan’s feisty Hero is beautifully played and spills out into the correct level of cold fury as events play out. Her relationship with Paul Bhattacharjee’s Benedick is interestingly played, a slow-burning relationship even by these standards as the connection between the pair is something that gradually builds rather than being immediately convincing. This means the gulling scenes don’t have quite the impact one might expect, Beatrice is particularly ill-served this time round as well, but their eventual union is as heart-rending and beautiful as one could hope for.
There’s interesting work in the ensemble too: I loved Robert Mountford’s Panditji, a youthfully warm take on Friar Francis, Anjana Vasan’s mostly mute maid has some good funny business and I also liked Kulvinder Ghir’s Borachio and Chetna Pandya’s forthright Margaret.
Both of us on the night felt that the second half was weaker – too long and lacking in pace (and to be honest, I didn’t care much for Madhav Sharma’s Leonato) but it soon picks up to a rousing finale. Tom Piper’s design is cleverly put together, allowing for visual splendour in many scenes, and Himani Dehlvi’s costumes just look gorgeous. The man who we chatted to in the interval, who’d previously seen it in Stratford, reckoned it was shorter, sharper and funnier this time round. Read into that what you will, but I really rather enjoyed it and found myself quite deeply moved.