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Much Ado About Nothing – The Royal Shakespeare Company

Directed by Roy Alexander Weise for the Royal Shakespeare Company, this year brought us a brand new interpretation of Shakespeare’s classic tale of matchmaking and manipulation, Much Ado About Nothing. Set designed by the award-winning Jemima Robinson, the production features costume designs by Melissa Simon-Hartman, who has designed for Beyoncé and Notting Hill Carnival, and an original score by Nigerian-born British guitarist and MOBO award-nominated musician Femi Temowo. That’s a lot of famous names on one stage!

So, does this new production stand out from the countless before it? Is it a much needed update for the modern world? Or is it Much Ado About Nothing? (sorry, had to!) Let’s see what our writers had to say…

An image of the actress playing Beatrice onstage in the production. She is a black woman with bright white hair, wearing a futuristic gold and green dress. The dress is adorned with flowers. The image is set within an abstract illustration in the rrramble colours.

Isaac

It should come as no surprise that the Royal Shakespeare Company is good at staging Shakespeare productions. When I sat down to watch Much Ado About Nothing I knew that, at the very least, I would be watching something polished and competent; the challenge lies in making the production stand out against four centuries of equally competent work. Some directors try to draw big-name actors to carry the work, while others rely on hammy gimmicks to sell themselves.

I don’t think Roy Alexander Weise falls into either of these camps. Instead, he stuck to a simple aesthetic principle: comedies should be fun to watch.

I was hooked within the first few minutes. Femi Temowo’s music and the colourful Afro-futurist costume and stage design were not only stunning, but lent a vibrancy to the story that went along perfectly with its content. The glance towards the future, and the playful extravagance of everything; it gave the sense of being in another place and time that one gets when reading Shakespeare but added a contemporary spin to it. Meanwhile the charisma of the cast and fidelity to the script showed that while the language and setting seem unfamiliar, the people at the heart of the story are just like us. In my opinion this is the gold standard of what modern Shakespeare should aim for: perfectly toeing the line between innovative production and design, while staying loyal to the human heart of the text.

There are still some of the problems that plague a lot of Shakespeare productions, mainly that the sheer density of the play makes it difficult to discern what’s going on if you haven’t brushed-up on the story beforehand. If I’m not prepared, I often find it difficult to establish who’s who and how they’re related. This wasn’t helped by one of the main expository scenes in Much Ado About Nothing having half the characters in masks and gold-breastplates, leaving very few visual clues to help navigate the huge cast. Thankfully, the stream having captions made it easier for me to catch-up. Once I’d broken through this barrier and gotten to grips with all the characters, I found myself totally immersed in the fun of it all, to the point where 3 hours flew by.

Much Ado About Nothing also bore one of my personal bugbears, and had everyone speak RP except the comic relief characters. It isn’t a vibe-killer, but this trope is honestly so tired I thought directors would know better by now. In fact, accents in general are a bit weird in this production; the main characters generally stick with RP, but the odd line or word seems to miscellaneously slip into West African, Caribbean, or (at one point) Southern US accents. This didn’t make the production any better or worse, but I couldn’t work out why the choice had been made.

All of these are the minor gripes I have with pretty much every Shakespeare production. By the curtain call, I wasn’t thinking about accents and trying to track all the different relationships. All I was thinking was how much fun I’d had watching these characters sing and dance, and learn the valuable life lesson of “it’s okay to respect the feelings of people you love over one guy who overtly hates you”. I truly love going in with no expectations and being caught off guard by just how good Shakespeare can be. I hope Roy Alexander Weise is given more directing work in the future, because if I had to put my review in three words, it would be: more like this.

A still from the production. Two actors are onstage in shiny gold jackets, dancing with their hands outstretched. They are smiling, and have brightly coloured shaped hair.
The future certainly looks upbeat! © RSC

Sophie N

Much Ado About Nothing has always been one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, despite not having gone back to it for years (over-analysing at GCSE will do that to a person). Nevertheless, I was eager to see what The Royal Shakespeare Company’s latest production, directed by Roy Alexander Weise would make of the witty comedy, and I was not disappointed.

Firstly, it’s an absolute spectacle. Like Black Panther meets Shakespeare, the Afro-futuristic style, costumes and sound design make for a visually striking and unique production. There’s something very sci-fi about it too – looking at the set pieces, it’s easy to be put in mind of the early Star Trek sets.

This futuristic feel is further enhanced by the gender-switching of two of the core characters: the charismatic Don Pedro (now Pedra), played by Toyin Ayedun-Alase and the bumbling Dogberry, played by Karen Henthorn. Perhaps this is all taking place in a universe where power and societal roles are no longer dictated by gender? I was really excited to see how this particular change would play out in this Much Ado About Nothing, but was disappointed to find that there was little change to the actual characters themselves. I feel that there was a missed opportunity to experiment more with what this change may have allowed in terms of their portrayal, and as a result, found it difficult not to question if there was then any point in doing it in the first place. Though, on reflection, maybe this was the intention – to show how, ultimately, gender is a construct. Where Shakespeare is concerned, the concept of gender has always been somewhat fluid after all.

At times, the chemistry between actors was lacking a little, particularly between Hero and Claudio. Maybe it’s just the romantic in me talking, but I would’ve liked to have seen more of a reaction at the reveal of her not-being-dead at the end, as it felt a little rushed. Although, by that point, we are almost three hours in so who could blame them for wanting to wrap things up? This wasn’t really a major complaint, as my favourite element of Much Ado About Nothing, as I’m sure it is for many, is the witty back-and-forth, love / hate relationship at its core. No matter what, Beatrice and Benedick had to have good chemistry… and Akiya Henry and Luke Wilson did not disappoint, with the former being the stand-out performance for me.

Occasionally, the acting was a little too over the top, to the point that it threatened to cross over into panto territory. During the scenes in which Beatrice and Benedick’s friends are conspiring to get them together, seeing the two characters crawling around on the floor and ‘hiding’ behind the outlandish set pieces did bring on the urge to cry out “he’s behind you!” However, this is really the worst thing that I can say about it, and if anything, at least it shows that, despite its length, I remained engaged throughout. As a production, Weise’s Much Ado About Nothing is a bold and colourful extravaganza with its own unique style and solid performances. Though it falls short in places, it cannot be faulted for trying something new. It may not be my favourite interpretation, but it’s definitely one that shouldn’t be missed.

A still from the production. A black woman stands, looking nervous, in an afro-futurist outfit. There is an elaborate beaded chest-piece, billowing silk sleeves, traditional Zulu headpiece and a brightly patterned skirt.
The costume design on this one is really out of this world… © RSC

Wayne

I don’t know if director Roy Alexander Weise was going for a feminist take on or whether that’s just what I read into it given the state of the world for women right now. 

Either way, the prominence the female characters were given in Much Ado About Nothing (including Don Pedro now being the pan sexual Don Pedra) was refreshing. Despite being labelled as a romantic comedy, I’ve always felt like Much Ado About Nothing was more about the toxicity of male pride and the heavy, unrealistic expectations placed on women when it came to family honour.

Honestly, I think he would’ve been better going for a Six The Musical-style adaptation. Where Mobo award-nominee Femi Temowo could’ve really stretched his legs, rather than serve up an (albeit cool) mix of genre-bending songs more suited to a Tesla advert. 

Sadly, whatever narrative Weise intended is outshone by the amazing work of set designer Jemima Robinson and costume designer Melissa Simon-Hartman. There’s a strong, 70s sci-fi kitschness running throughout – think Logan’s Run meets The Lion King. 

It’s visually stunning. From its golden, glimmering costumes to super shiny staging. Unfortunately, there’s not much going on under all that gloss. Given its frenetic start, clever choreography and nice moments of physical interplay I expected to be wowed by Much Ado About Nothing

Instead, this adaptation lived up to its name. It takes too long to find its feet, feeling much longer than its 2hrs 42min run-time. There’s too much reliance on the music, which throws the pacing off. It’s like some Baz-Luhrmann-loving, Red-Bull-fuelled teenager was writing an essay about Much Ado while High School The Musical: The Series was on in the background and thought “I know how to zhoosh this up…”

Strong performances would’ve pulled this production through, but they’re a mixed bag. Sapphire Joy as handmaid Margaret, DK Fashola as the Friar (and the play’s movement director) and Akiya Henry as Beatrice (despite morphing into Babs Windsor at times) took top honours. Taya Ming as the wronged Hero is late to the party after a wishy-washy start, but her speech in the finale hits hard.

The only man who shines is Luke Wilson (no, not that one) as Benedick. There’s a servant in a garden scene who makes the most of his one-line and then flitters embarrassedly about while Benedick hides behind him. Very The Play That Goes Wrong… The rest are two-dimensional caricatures who pronounce lines, not perform them, with a reliance on strange delivery choices. 

Beatrice asking Benedict to kill Claudio should stifle laughs, not elicit them. The moments involving the night watch were painfully pantomime-ish and out of place. Michah Balfour’s sneering Don John reminded me of Dick Dastardly. His sidekick Borachio (Curtis Kemlo) looked like he wandered in off the set of Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element. For the unfamiliar, neither of those are compliments. 

Hero’s public maligning, “death” and then “resurrection” are woefully underplayed. Not helped by the lack of chemistry between Ming’s Hero and Mohammed Mansaray’s Claudio. Their characters drive the plot, but I’ve seen couples on Married at First Sight who have a higher chance of a long marriage. 

The success of any version of Much Ado About Nothing hangs on the spark between its other central couple – Benedick and Beatrice. Their sparring was whimsical, missing the necessary bite or intensity.

A romantic comedy that’s neither romantic nor funny. Come for the story, stay for the spectacle.

The RSC’s Much Ado About Nothing is currently available to watch for free on BBC iPlayer.

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