Much Ado About Nothing (RSC) @ Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 2014Comedy

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Much Ado about Nothing (billed as Love’s Labour’s Won). Royal Shakespeare Company at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. 4 October 2014. Directed by Christopher Luscombe.

Reviewed by Gretchen  E. Minton (Montana State University)

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This fall the Royal Shakespeare Company announced the pairing of Shakespeare’s ‘two great romantic comedies’, Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado about Nothing, for the first time. In order to highlight the pairing, the latter play is billed as Love’s Labour’s Won (the name of a lost play by Shakespeare that some have speculated might be the alternate title of Much Ado). The plays are set in 1914 and 1918 respectively, which provides a provocative connection to the World War I centennial commemorations that are happening all over Europe this year.

The opening set of Much Ado featured several hospital beds lined up in a country house. The beautiful design, modeled after nearby Charlecote Park, evoked the ways in which the war reached into every corner of England, as the aristocracy opened its manor house doors to provide places that the sick and wounded could be cared for. This plotline is certainly familiar to anyone who watched season two of Downton Abbey. Indeed, the entire production echoed certain aspects of the popular TV show. Most strikingly, Borachio (Chris Nayak) was portrayed as a servingman who ominously lurked around the house and used information he gathered in order to help Don John destroy others’ happiness. In this guise, Borachio, who even spent one exchange polishing a shoe, was entirely reminiscent of Downton’s Thomas, the perpetually discontent and villainous footman. Making Borachio, Margaret, and Ursula into servants in the Downton Abbey mould evoked an upstairs/downstairs dynamic that could have provided interesting class commentary for the play as well as its 1918 setting. Yet even as this production of Much Ado suggested such directions, it invariably backed away from them.

LLM-9 copyIn the opulent splendor of Charlecote (or Downton), the characters moved through gorgeous rooms with oriental rugs, chaise lounges, a giant Christmas tree (in which Benedick hid to great comic effect), and plenteous music—including a jazz rendition of Marlowe’s ‘Come Live with Me’ that was entertaining, although the idea was no doubt taken from the opening scene of Richard Loncraine’s Richard III film. The Christmas setting for Much Ado suggested that it had been less than two months since Armistice Day, and the second half of the play opened with a chorus of ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ to highlight the recent sorrow. Surprisingly, however, the trauma of the war was somehow entirely a thing of the past.

When Downton Abbey covered the war years, it showed trench warfare, soldiers wounded both physically and mentally, and the flu epidemic. As the companion piece to the 1914 Love’s Labour’s Lost, one assumed that this production of Much Ado might be a bit darker, or at least acknowledge the great cost of the victory and the difficulty that the soldiers had coming home and learning to be whole again. However, Don Pedro and his followers acted more as if they had merely been away on an extended holiday. The only sign of damage was that Don John (Sam Alexander) walked with a crutch—perhaps a permanent war injury that was related to his saturnine anger. Neither this nor the erratic and comically strained behaviour of Nick Haverson’s Dogberry (perhaps suggestive of shell-shock?) was fully explored. Similarly, Beatrice (Michelle Terry) and Hero (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) opened the play in nurse’s uniforms, but they quickly changed into something more like flapper costumes, the war behind them and easily forgotten. Thus, despite excellent performances by Terry’s Beatrice and Edward Bennett’s Benedick, the audience was not given the opportunity to look at the story of these seasoned lovers through the lens of early twentieth century hardship, because the suffering was apparently rather insubstantial.

The Hero/Claudio plot is often difficult, but in this production it fell particularly flat, largely because of these same missed chances to draw upon the setting as a way to give the characters a much-needed multi-dimensionality that the text itself does not entirely offer. It has perhaps become commonplace to see a violent Claudio repudiating Hero at the altar, and no doubt this is often over-done. In a complete counter-point to this trend, in this production Tunji Kasim was the mildest Claudio that one can imagine. He did not lay a hand on Hero, did not knock anything over or act enraged, did not even really raise his voice. If Claudio is a soldier who spent years in the trenches and just lost the symbol of innocent beauty that he grasped upon his return, why would not he, of all Claudios, have been violent?

The beautiful sets, music, costumes, and dancing of this production did an excellent job of evoking a time period upon which many are reflecting this year. Given this ethos, however, it is a shame that the characters had no back-stories that gave full weight to the hard-won reconciliations of the play’s final scene. Although it is true that a particular concept can be pushed too far, Luscombe’s production, which had many excellent features, was disappointing with respect to taking a serious look at the post-World-War-I setting.

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