Iqbal Khan’s production of Much Ado works precisely because it is set outside Delhi with a Asian cast. As well as tapping richly into an Indian love of words and wordplay, this cultural context helps to make plausible and intelligible many aspects of the play which I have usually feltÂ don’t make much psychological sense to a modern western audience. Paternal authority, marriages arranged by others and codes of honour often make the play implausible, but not so here. The military context, with soldiers returning from war, is often underplayed but here it makes sense that Claudio, returning from war, should want a wife. It also makes sense that benedick, unpracticed in love, should fall for the tricks played on him and should begin to think he is in love without losing his moral integrity. Indeed, when placed in the civilian context once again, he gains in moral stature and insight. Khan also does interesting things with class, paricularly when doubling characters, making it richer than usual as making me think about class relationships and roles both in India and in contemporary Britain.
This production is also interesting because it places the mainÂ focus on Claudio and Leonato (beautifully and powerfullyÂ played by Madhav Sharma)Â , and somewhat away from Benedick and Beatrice.
The casting of Shiv Grewal as a young, energetic and sexyÂ Don Pedro is also interesting in that I had some sympathy for himÂ at the end of the play. Having organised the match for his social inferior he remained alone like an Antonio figure at the end. Khan’s attention to textual detail is also apparent in his treatment of Don John, pulling out theÂ Â enigmatic ‘I cannot hide what I am’ for the audience to ponder.
The cast is strong. Sagar Arya is a strong Claudio, well able to support the focus placed upon him. Amara Karan’s Hero is poised and very beautiful; the audience can believe that she would do what her father demanded without losing her sense of self. Meera Syal is mesmerising as Beatrice; it is a perfect choice to play her as a mature woman, not yet married, strong in her opinions and yet wanting a relationship. Paul Bhattacharee’s Benedick is also strong, transforming himself physically as he falls in (for?) love. They are grown ups in a society where most marry young.
I even found the Dogberry/Watch stuff tolerable.
The set, the outside of an upper middle class house outside Delhi, is functional and clever, opening up at the end. Himani Dehlvi’s costumes are lovely – flowing, atmosphereic and varied – and the Indian wedding is a delightful mixture of colour, opulence and tackiness, giving the characters yet another chance to change their footwear. Niraj Chag’s music is full of spirit and cultural colour. There are (as in all the productioins in the main theatre since its reopening) some special effects. There was only a soundtrack of rain when it is mentioned in the play, but lots of rain in the scene where Claudio visits Hero’s mausoleum. Although I thought it did little more than add a touch of unnecessary pathetic fallacy, I imagine that many members of the audience would ooh and aah about the rain and ask themselves how it was done, particularly if they noticed it trickling along the grooves in the set floor. I always prefer to hear the play, but the RSC needs to show off its state of the art equipment, I guess.
There is plenty of detail to enjoy and think about: footwear and the lack of it; mobile phones and call centre cables; peeing on stage; social and domestic business;Â wedding lights; complex and varied light projections.
Tickets are selling fast, maybe because of Meera Syal. She certainly demonstrates that she is a considerable Shakespearian actress but there is also much more to enjoy.Â As with Julius Caesar I ended up thinking about the play’s ideasÂ afterwardsÂ much more than usual.
It is also an opportunity to celebrate the return of aÂ main production to the Courtyard. The importance of this theatre, run by the legendary Buzz Goodbody when it was The Other Place, is huge in twenieth century theatre history. Many Stratford philistines, under the mistaken guise of supporting ‘traditional Stratford’Â want to have the theatre pulled down because it’s a ‘rusty shed’. Â Even normally sensible bodies like the Stratford Society seem to have been pulled into the campaign to get it pulled down rather than remodelled. The country has already lost Joan Littlewood’s Blackfrairs Theatre. Let it not also lose The Other Place/Courtyard, too.
Come and see Meera Syal and a really enjoyable, coherent production. And enjoy bed and breakfast at Moss Cottage, too.