Gentle Readers: I have posted previously a review of Shakespeare’s Richard III, a review written by Chris Sandrawich of the JAS-Midlands Branch in the UK [ you can read this review here], and I welcome Chris back today with his review of another play in this year’s World Shakespeare Festival. This festival has been an outstanding, stunning event, and because I live Here [and alas! have not seen a single one] and Chris lives There, I am most pleased to have him share his witty and brilliant analysis of the plays he has attended… [the delay in posting entirely my fault – blaming this like everything else on Moving…] – so herewith, without further ado and with my heartfelt Thanks, is Chris on Much Ado About Nothing.
[image: Courtyard Theatre, Stratford – wikipedia]
Much Ado About Nothing at The Courtyard Theatre on 9th August 2012.
Driving south and approaching Stratford we felt an element of sadness that this Play was to be our penultimate visit in the series of six that we had booked and this one would be the only play showing at The Courtyard Theatre.
Getting there in good time is a must for car-parking in Stratford and as we strolled in good time into the paved courtyard space dividing the theatre building from the road the first signs of an Indian influence and a different flavour to the evening were evident as an impending “assault on our senses.” There was a caterwauling of car horns, bangs and shrieks layered with sitars, tablas, as well as western drum kits and reed instruments too varied for my limited musical ear to distinguish which ones, all emerging as a wall of sound from inside the theatre proper. The whiff of spices and burning joss-sticks made me feel once again that I was in my youthful days of the South Kensington of our swinging sixties. The aromas were doing their best but any olfaction was losing against an off-putting drift of a zephyr sufficiently persistent to ruin the overall effect of “something in the air” on what was, for this very wet unseasonable season, a beautifully rare azure skied summer’s evening. Directly in the centre stood a man with a tray selling freshly baked pakoras and samosas, and although we had eaten earlier they seemed too tempting to resist. Just like Oscar Wilde we can resist anything except temptation and gave in gratefully. We sat on a bench to one side and enjoying the evening sunshine ate these delicious starters. The fascination of the British with Indian food is now remarkably well-entrenched for something which was so negligible it did not exist when I was born in the baby-boom. The relationship of the British with the subcontinent had run for over two centuries without much of an encroachment of curries into a land of roast beef and three veg. At the time I was ushered into the world there were only three, very expensively posh, London West End, Indian restaurants (or so I am informed) and all essentially serving food to those who had been in the Armed Forces based in India or who had lived through the days of the Raj. Even at half my present years, there were easily more fish and chip shops than all the rest put together, and any Briton wanting a taste of the East went to a Chinese Restaurant. Now, and nobody is quite sure why, except that Indian food tastes great, two-thirds of all restaurants are Indian (over 10,000) and they serve over two and a half million customers a week generating a yearly turnover of well over £3 Billion pa. The taste of India is here to stay. Of course, when the British say “Indian food” they include without any discrimination indigenous Pakistani foods, especially Balti dishes. Neither is there any great distinction between the types of Indian food originating in India which varies as does the availability of foodstuffs and spices determined by the sea, forests, plains and mountains that are nearby and the endless variety of cultural and regional differences. From the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to West Bengal these thirty-three distinctively different types of Indian Cuisine (see Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_cuisine) are all merged into an “Indian” for the mostly unknowing but very ‘hungry for a curry’ British. We, the British, do have very cosmopolitan tastes these days. To somebody of my parents’ generation such a description of the amounts of Indian food consumed in these Islands would have seemed as far-fetched as landing a one-ton atomic-powered vehicle on Mars which can motor up a 3000 metre high mountain and which sends back pictures, performs experiments and tests rock samples remotely with a laser gun. Or as the bizarre and outlandish events of seeing in the same wet English summer a winner of the Tour de France and a winner of a men’s Tennis Grand Slam tournament by Britons.
[Samosas at Indian Foods Co]
Polishing off these snacks we idly watched other theatre goers wander about and chatted, as is my wont, to some of them about their experience of The World Shakespeare Festival 2012. Everyone was very positive and had something good to say about the plays they had chosen to go to. There was this communal feeling of yearning to be able, subject to the constraints of time and expense, to see all the Plays and at all venues. We may not like to concede inevitable defeat in the face of such a commitment, but we all had to choose only some, and give up many, to see. We did so with some regret at what we were missing as well as the great pleasure in what we had seen and heard. There is no doubting the overall success of this venture and I do hope that in future years this “International Flavour” is encouraged and nurtured alongside home-grown talent. We must recognise that Shakespeare is owned by the whole world these days and is studied and played everywhere, phenomenal though that thought is. Normally the British are more tight-lipped than seemed the case in these discussions and I wondered whether there was some overspill of general bonhomie from the feel-good factor of the Olympics. I rather think there was, and I hope it lasts.
Meera Syal as Beatrice
Deciding that, interesting as chatting proved to be, we could wait no longer to explore what this cacophony of sounds was all about we wandered in to look and lurk on a slow dawdle to our seats. The cast, with many associates, were doing their level best to recreate Indian City street scenes (I assume successfully but I have not had any first-hand experience) with vendors, musicians, singer sewing machines, comestibles, bright colours and a generous dollop of paraphernalia seeping in all directions. As the zephyr’s powers failed at the portal we got a lovely whiff of spices and joss-sticks so that our eyes, ears and nostrils were acutely aware of all things Indian. There were no elephants or sacred cows lumbering about but I suppose there are limits! Enjoying the scene we ambled down aisle 5 into seats 20 and 21 on the end of Row A which put us in the stalls front centre. The stage came right up to us, of course, and directly in front of us were steps up onto the stage and so we could surreptitiously hang our feet out onto the first steps and later claim we were onstage, treading those Shakespearean boards at Stratford, during a live performance. It has a similar ring to my saying I was “up at Oxford in the sixties” when in reality I was only there to see Boro play Oxford Town in the third round of the FA Cup in a cold snowy January.
To get a flavour of just how well the cast play and look, and how they dress, and to hear “Benedick” speaking against a background of Indian rhythms then go to http://www.rsc.org.uk/whats-on/much-ado-about-nothing/ and press play.
Much Ado About Nothing
Whenever I think about Much Ado About Nothing I think about another kind of nothing associated with the Play and wonder about what Shakespeare originally intended. The original versions of the Play have many stage directions and in the opening directions there is a mention of Leonato’s wife Innogen. However, she never appears or says anything and so in most versions of the Play in modern times she does not even rate a mention. Shakespeare in his creative passion must originally have had a role in mind, but later found the plot and dialogue had no way of including her and so she is left as much ado about nothing, as well. I still wonder though.
The stage looked magnificent with an imposing edifice at the back of the stage of a family house of someone well-to-do if the numbers of doors, windows and balconies were any indicator. There was an enormous (artificial, of course but nonetheless imposing) tree on the right and around the tree, which is exactly how it has been described to me, depicting the rapid growth of technological industries and usage in India without the necessary time or money to build an infrastructure that keeps such things out of sight; were the coiled wrappings of cables thick and thin and of many colours. This is typical of the pragmatism that makes do whilst allowing the flow of commerce and telecommunications unabated. Actors on stage were involved in comings, goings and all the minutia of filling in the time until the Play proper could begin whilst giving the early arrivals something to look at and listen to.
Courtyard Theatre – image: The Guardian
Chatting to the couple just behind us we learned that this was their third visit this year to see this Play alone and that they simply loved it, especially this production. They had tried sitting both left and right and were now viewing from front and centre. They lived locally and wished to see other plays but each time the subject arose between them they kept returning just like frogs to a pond to see this one again. The lady did say that although the Play had received rave notices she had thought the Times Critic a little picky for adversely commenting that Paul Bhattacharjee (Benedick) and Meera Syal (Beatrice) were a little too ‘long in the tooth’ for the parts suggested. We were unable to establish just how much we could agree on about the critic being mistaken when the Play started. Have you noticed how they never seem to worry about an interesting conversation or two going on out there but just start when they want to? Later, I pondered on the merits of the Times critic’s attack (although I did not actually read what he said) and found that although I could see where he might be coming from I did not agree.
Beatrice and Bendick
Unlike Romeo and Juliet there are no exact mentions of age with Beatrice and Benedick, and although Claudio and Benedick are described as “young lads” of Florence and Padua respectively they do not have to be of the same age bracket. There are many suggestions of Benedick being older than Claudio. When Beatrice says, “Scratching could not make it worse, an ‘twere such a face as yours were” is she describing a young visage? When she later says, “You always end with a jade’s trick: I know you of old” she is not talking of a brief acquaintance. When Benedick says to Claudio, “I can see yet without spectacles . . . . .” is not that a reference to advancing years and an age difference between them? There is also references to Benedick regularly taking up the company of young(er) men, the latest being Claudio, and there is in Elizabethan times (and even with Shakespeare himself it seems) as shown in The Merchant of Venice with Antonio and Bassanio the examples of “close relationships” between an older and a younger man. There are as a counter argument references to “young” or “youth” in the play but such terms are relative. All I know is that having Beatrice and Benedick older than Claudio and Hero as with the Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson film version worked very well and our two leads were brilliant.
Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh as Beatrice and Benedick
The naming of Hero as “Hero” is quite deliberate by Shakespeare to foreshadow her “doubtful chastity” which is part of his plot. The myth of “Hero and Leander” was well known to Elizabethans and Shakespeare himself uses references to them in many of his plays, and Christopher Marlowe had written a poem Hero and Leander in 1598, and the timing of Much Ado About Nothing is generally fixed as 1599, so as usual Shakespeare borrowed from ancient and modern and just about any good story he could get his hands on. What he did with these stories is the real mark of his genius. In the same way with naming characters it is no coincidence, we can infer, that Don John is chosen as our villain when the bastard brother of Phillip II was also called Don John and was a personage well known to Elizabethans.
The Play transfers very well from Italy to India and to Delhi. Messina, Padua and Florence are kept in the text but references to Italy are simply replaced with India and all the rest unchanged with the obvious notable exception of the Friar replaced by the Panditji.
Well the Play rattled along with its wonderful set and fine troupe of actors but as mentioned above Meera Syal and Paul Bhattacharjee were scintillating as the brightly sparkling duellists in language that prickles with the heat of their exchanges and they displayed a great chemistry between them as sparks flew off in their verbal sparring sessions. Whilst tearing down each other’s reputations they did take careful note of exactly what the other was up to at all times and demonstrated a fulsome ambiguity throughout of the real nature of their interest in each other.
In the Kenneth Branagh film alluded to above the parts of Dogberry and Verges are wonderfully played and sent up to the moon and back by Michael Keaton and Ben Elton (who can ever forget their boyishly ‘pretend’ horses and dismounts) and they have ruined forever in Olivier fashion these parts for a generation of actors. Simon Nagra and Bhati Patel did their best, I suppose; but I was unimpressed. Long before Richard Brinsley Sheridan invented Mrs Malaprop in the The Rivals we have Dogberry butchering the English Language and uncannily substituting a similar but wrong word for the one intended. This misuse reaches a high art form as Dogberry urges his charges to be “vigitant” and expressed his hopes that they remain “senseless” of it! For me this difficult part did not quite work for Simon Nagra’s skills, and a lot of the humour was lost in the lack of emphasis and facial expressions needed to bring the audience along with each new twisting verbal cudgel swiped at the passing words.
“Dogberry and Verges with the Watch.” Engraving by Robert Mitchell Meadows, before 1812. Public domain.
The parts of Dogberry and Verges are important enough to require more powerful actors than we saw here to not only make them memorable but to extract all the humour their use of language brings to the play. These absurd officials were stretched by Shakespeare into seemingly unlikely “real people” but the audience of the time recognised only too clearly that these sorts of constables could be met with everywhere. “Hazlitt praised Dogberry, regularly hailed since as an all too convincing depiction of petty officialdom” (as taken from page 309 of The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare Edited by Michael Dobson & Stanley Wells – which Dame Judi Dench describes (and I warmly agree) “A wonderful treasure-house of information and insight”). As further supporting evidence of just how “real” Dogberry and Verges are to their time my Annotated Shakespeare by A L Rowse offers on page 394 a letter from Lord Burghley to Walsingham (Elizabeth’s principal Ministers at the time of the hue and cry over the search for the Babington Conspirators who intended Elizabeth’s death and her replacement by Mary Stuart) which says:
Sir, As I came from London homeward in my coach. I saw at every town’s end the number of ten or twelve standing with long staves, and until I came to Enfield I thought no other of them but that they had stayed for avoiding of the rain, or to drink at some alehouse, for so they did stand under pentices at alehouses. But at Enfield finding a dozen in a plump, when there was no rain, I bethought myself that they were appointed as watchmen, for the apprehending of such as are missing. And thereupon I called some of them to me apart, and asked them wherefore they stood there. And one of them answered, “To take three young men.” And demanding how they should know the persons, one answered with these words, “Marry, my Lord, by intelligence of their favour.” “What mean you by that?” quoth I. “Marry”, said they, “one of the parties hath a hooked nose.” “And have you,” quoth I, “no other mark?” “No,” saith they. And then I asked who appointed them. And they answered one Banks, a head constable, whom I willed to be sent to me. “Surely, sir, whoever had the charge from you hath used the matter negligently. For these watchmen stand so openly in plumps as no suspected person will come near them; and if they be no better instructed but to find three persons by one of them having a hooked nose, they may miss thereof.”
You get from this slice of Elizabethan writing (don’t you just love the ‘standing in plumps’) and reported speech a pretty picture of “idiots in charge”.
It is interesting to note that “pentices”, mentioned by Lord Burghley, is normally used in modern usage to signify Penthouses but in Tudor times it meant a ‘hipped building’ where the upstairs was larger than the ground floor and so there would be an overhang that offered shelter from inclement weather. Don John’s agent in malice, Borachio, actually says to Conrad, “Stand thee close then under this pent-house, for it drizzles rain, and I will, like a true drunkard, utter all to thee.” And confesses to the trick played on Hero whilst the Watch listen. This shows some change of meaning to the word “penthouse” over the centuries, unless the original Penthouses also had an overhang being on the topmost floor. Anyone out there know?
One of the cameos of the evening’s entertainment was the brilliant acting of Anjana Vasan (the maid) who they used instead of the ‘boy’ bid by Benedick to fetch his book from his chamber window to bring to the orchard. She arrives back but is unable to find Benedick hidden as he is from the others. She kneels down in the front centre of the stage in order to get away from the others and not attract their attention or distract them as they circle and try in loud conversation to catch Benedick’s ear.
Anjana Vasan as Maid in Much Ado About Nothing. Photo by Ellie Kurtz.
[Image: RSC website]
Wide-eyed she kneels there drinking in and believing every word of their overblown description of how much Beatrice is fancied to be in love with Benedick. This maid’s face reflects the action as she enters more and more into the supposed turmoil of Beatrice’s mind as her excitement grows and reveals a most delightful range of high-flown passionate expressions as in a crescendo Claudio gets to his speech
Hero thinks surely she will die, for
She says she will die, if he love her not, and
She will die, ere she make her love known,
And she will die, if he woo her, rather than
She will bate on breath of her accustomed crossness
And at each belling of the word die the lovely Anjana’s face was a picture to behold, riven through with Beatrice’s living pain, whilst holding onto Benedick’s book as a kind of talisman in defence all the while, and finally collapsing in a heap as the rest take absolutely no notice of her whatsoever. A marvellous piece of unwritten addition to the Play and the Director and cast should be well pleased with themselves for its inclusion. Well done Anjana Vasan.
When the entire Play was done the cast received from a full house a most rapturous and fully deserved burst of applause. They (apart from my gripes about Dogberry and Verges) were simply wonderful. On the way home we discussed how well the play had worked and just where we had seen the actors perform in other areas. We really could not call anything to mind for the excellent Paul Bhattacharjee although he seemed very familiar to us indeed. As luck would have it and without even planning to have an Indian theme to our week we saw the film, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” the next night and whilst enjoying the main parts we noted how so many of the smaller roles in this film were also being played by first class performers. If you have seen the film there is a wonderful hospital scene in which Maggie Smith’s character is displaying rampant racism and insists upon an English doctor. The Staff Nurse brings her one speaking perfect English and lo and behold there in his pin-stripe suit stood our Benedick from the previous night, Paul Bhattacharjee, this time playing a hospital doctor. We were also able to compare the attempts at giving us a flavour of a city in India with those from the film and found them, space and expense permitting, pretty close.
Another Triumph seen and heard and once more worth every penny of the £48 per seat, and as we had booked six for a ‘Stratford Pass’ we got 20% off as well.
Chris Sandrawich, 14th September 2012.
- 26 July – 15 September (The Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon) – alas! it has already moved to London!
- 22 September – 27 October (The Noël Coward Theatre, London)
c2012 Jane Austen in Vermont
Bringing Meera Syal to the RSC stage for the first time, relocating Much Ado About Nothing to modern-day India: the latest contribution to the World Shakespeare Festival certainly couldn’t be accused of lacking eye-catching qualities. And Tom Piper’s ravishing set, almost the star turn in Iqbal Khan’s revival, takes an exotic hold on your imagination from the moment you set foot inside the re-opened Courtyard Theatre. With its grand mock-up of a palatial haveli, dominated by a vast, specially constructed tree laced with ropes and cables (a nod to the country’s chaotic power-supply system?), it’s hard to resist whipping out your camera-phone and taking a souvenir snap.
But it’s a long, long way to Delhi from Shakespeare’s setting – Messina – and the fact that the predominantly Asian company has only had six weeks of rehearsal is rather too evident; the show plainly needs more time to bed down.
Conceptually the continental shift works well. To judge by their blue berets and camouflage gear, Don Pedro and his men are returning from a UN peace-keeping mission. For all the bling consumerism on display in Leonato’s pile, the transposition easily houses the play’s strict social hierarchies, gender inequalities, arranged matches, honour codes and ad hoc approach to justice.
The dark thrust of the tale – centring on Claudio’s callous mistreatment of Leonato’s calumnied daughter Hero – is nicely served and the nuptial-rejection scene all the more shocking for the added colour lavished on the occasion. At times – as when Hero’s tomb is shown translated into a smoking funeral pyre, the cast breaking into stylised movement with rain falling from the heavens – the production achieves a marriage of Bard and Bollywood that’s breathtaking to behold.
But Khan and co get carried away with incidental attempts to innovate. The live music is terrific but there are vulgar interpolations during the watchmen’s eavesdropping scene and gimmicky antics, especially during the gulling of Beatrice.
What’s lacking at the moment is the more boring virtue of delivering the text with clarity, comic confidence and grace.
Syal could be fantastic as Beatrice but she’s not there yet. It’s one of the toughest female roles in the canon: although this scourge of the opposite sex is sniping from the sidelines, all eyes are on her – she has to dominate, get the last word. Playing up the character’s melancholy, the actress lends too downbeat a note. When she cackles with delight on learning of the knavery that has led her to reveal her heart and swoons at the kiss Paul Bhattacharjee’s Benedick bestows on her, we bask in a gaiety too long absent elsewhere.
Bhattacharjee’s incorrigible bachelor – gap-toothed, with distinguished grey hair – is easier to love, nimble-witted but taking his time in holding his own. If the rest of the ensemble could follow his example – unhurried, unflashy yet full of energy – it, and the RSC, would be on to a winner.
Until Sept 15, then at Noel Coward Theatre Sept 22-Oct 27. Tickets: 0844 800 1110