Year of Shakespeare: Much Ado about Nothing at the RSC

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This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.


Much Ado About Nothing, dir. Iqbal Khan, Royal Shakespeare Company, 8 August 2012 at the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

By Kate Rumbold, University of Birmingham

Bicycles dangled from the ceiling, engines revved, and car horns blared: the foyer of the Courtyard Theatre invited the audience into a world of warmth, colour, and noisy excess.   Inside the auditorium, the elegantly shuttered windows, doors and staircases of the Indian house that formed the backdrop to the set provided entrances and exits for the pre-show comings and goings of a busy household.  In their midst, Dogberry (Simon Nagra) misarticulated instructions to the chattering audience to turn off their cameras and mobile phones.  Even before the performance began, Much Ado seemed determined to charm its audience with a sensory experience of Delhi.

Early scenes expanded this bustling domesticity, as members of the household greeted, flirted and, in the case of Beatrice (Meera Syal), bantered with the returning, UN-uniform-clad soldiers.  The mood was festive: a drink was never far from anyone’s hands, and Beatrice and Benedick’s (Paul Bhattacharjee) exchanges seemed to fall into a steady spar/sip, spar/sip rhythm.  For all the busyness, though, the blocking was often static, with characters delivering their lines as others looked staidly on from the sidelines.  There were bursts of energy: Beatrice and the girls clambered rowdily on to the stage singing a pop song, and the cast, disguised in sunglasses (for women) and headscarves (for men) performed the ‘masked’ dance to a Bollywood backing.  Its repetitive moves, however, seemed a restrained echo of the Slumdog energy audiences might associate with that genre.

Meera Syal made an appealing Beatrice.  At once grounded and mischievous, she showed compassion for her young, naïve cousin Hero (Amara Karan), and sharp-tongued but vulnerable disdain for Benedick.  An experienced comic actress, she surpassed him in wit and comic timing.  Bhattacharjee’s slightly shambling appearance worked in his favour, though: the coming together of this weary couple seemed deeply felt as they sat quietly together on the swing at the side of the stage.

Along the way, the two were duly gulled into believing the other loved them, Benedick leaving Balthasar (Raj Bajaj) onstage to sing a haunting, upbeat version of ‘Sigh no more’, and Beatrice tricked while clad in dressing gown with hair removal cream on her top lip.  In a nod to the ‘thrusting commercialism’ of contemporary Delhi noted by Syal (RSC programme), Hero communicated the false news of Benedick’s love by smartphone, her provocative message blaring out improbably on speakerphone for Beatrice to overhear.  Beatrice showed warmth and maturity as she accepted its criticisms, and hugged herself with news of Benedick’s apparent affection.

The wedding of Hero and Claudio (Sagar Arya) in the play’s second half was a dazzling focal point.  Members of the household worked together to decorate the stage with colourful garlands and ribbons, guests arrived in increasing finery, several audience members were invited to join the celebrations, and, finally, Hero walked down the central aisle and on to the stage in a dress glittering with gold, after days of excited anticipation.  This protracted, earnest build-up only exaggerated the swift cruelty of Claudio’s misguided rejection of her.  The wedding scene was also central to the connections the production wished to draw with the arranged marriages, family honour and changing attitudes to women of contemporary Indian culture.

On-stage urination aside, the second half peaked with the relief and laughter of Beatrice and Benedick’s first kiss, and a final dance, with the cast, now dressed in white, moving joyously and stylishly around the stage.  Other World Shakespeare Festival productions from the Indian subcontinent, such as the Hindi Twelfth Night (‘a carefree romp, punctuated throughout with musical numbers’), and the Gujarati All’s Well (which ‘began with the entire cast, brightly costumed in the dress of 1900s Gujarat, lining up to sing’), seemed to burst into song every few minutes.  Khan’s production, however, largely confined itself to the music prescribed by Shakespeare’s play.  More frequent appearances of the explosive energy saved for its final moments might have enhanced this rich but lengthy production.

Two Asian WSF productions – All’s Well and the Urdu Taming of the Shrew – also turned anachronistic Shakespearean narratives of arranged marriage and patriarchal control into live cultural issues.  Yet where, for example, the Urdu production raised questions such as ‘Would theirs be a “modern” love match … or a “traditional” family arrangement? Would feminism or patriarchy triumph?’, and then transcended them, ‘upturning and then soaring above such polarized stereotypes, weaving intercultural rhythms that beat in harmonious global tandem’, it is not clear how far Khan’s production went beyond pointing out those elements that ‘richly resonate within the Indian social and cultural milieu’ (Jyotsna Singh, RSC programme), to explore what these resonances actually tell us anew about Shakespeare’s play, and about Indian culture.

This Much Ado has been praised as a ‘postcolonial adaptation’ (Gitanjali Shahani, RSC programme) in comparison with John Barton’s 1976 version, set in British India, with a Sikh Dogberry and numerous colonial officials.  Yet some reviewers have criticised it as a ‘parody or pastiche of “internationalism”, with apparently second generation British actors pretending to return to their cultural roots in a decidedly colonial way.’  Such reviews suggest that Birmingham-born Khan’s production is simplistic in its treatment of modern Indian life, and indeed, one could perhaps imagine a version in which the company’s inevitable second-generation detachment from India is not ignored but ironised, as in Syal’s own successful television series Goodness Gracious Me.

The RSC often sets plays performed by British actors in international locales, yet judged in the hyper-global context of the World Shakespeare Festival, this Much Ado can come to seem pseudo-international, even inauthentic.  The combination of the distinctive space of the Globe, the otherness of its foreign visitors, the absence of English language, and even the Globe’s seeming proximity to Shakespeare, has evidently ascribed to participants in the ‘Globe to Globe’ festival in particular a new degree of ‘authenticity’.  One of the most positive outcomes of Khan’s warm-hearted production might be to reopen debate about what constitutes ‘authenticity’ in global Shakespeare performance, and to show how far the intense internationalism of the WSF has already changed expectations of ‘global’ theatre.

What do you think of this interpretation of Shakespeare? Please add your thoughts to the discussion thread below!


To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.


Listen to interviews with other audience members below:

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Author:Kate Rumbold

Kate Rumbold is a Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Birmingham. She writes about the way Shakespeare is quoted and valued in literature and culture, from his own lifetime to the twenty-first century.
  • Jonathan Evans

    Hi Erin. I agree that it wasn’t meant to be perjorative, but the use of such language tends to steer you in that direction.  It’s like the question of “authenticity”, which is an odd word to use in the context of what’s an essentially artificial construct.  I tend to think something that *seems* authentic is simply something that “works”.  I guess we’re getting into semantics here, and I’ve got no problem with a flawed interpretation being criticised for lack of understanding / trivialisation etc.  What I do think wrong, though, would be to privilege certain approaches purely on the basis of geography.  Again, I’m sure this not the intent of the blog, but it gets dangerously close to endorsing that view.  A version of ‘Much Ado’ devised in Birmingham might just engage better with aspects of Indian culture than one originating in Mumbai.  It, equally, might not – or, indeed, more probably will not!  But authenticity is such a loaded term that I’d rather we only use it in discussing how effectively a fiction has been realised (which is, in itself, I suppose a paradoxical statement!).

  • Erin Sullivan

    I thought the wedding scene was wonderful – the best I’ve ever seen, really. The glittering build-up made the fall out all the more horrible. I think Jonathan also raises an interesting point, although I don’t think the reviewer intended ‘Birmingham-born’ or ‘second generation’ to be pejorative in any sense. Rather, I think she (and the other reviewer she was quoting) was trying to work through the implications of using a particular and very specific cultural setting to make a piece of art mean something in a related but distinct culture. Personally, I thought that the Delhi setting worked well in this production, although I suspect a British Asian setting would have worked equally well (Much Ado about Bradford? Or Birmingham, for that matter). I found the Caesar setting more difficult to accept, although as I’ve mentioned in another comment I thought the acting in the production was spectacular. I can understand though why others might feel quite differently about it – for me one of the best things about these productions has been the debates they open up.

  • Jonathan Evans

    Not seen this, but read similar comments about the current RSC ‘Julius Caesar’, which I have seen. Without getting drawn into the merits of specific productions, I’m disturbed by the implication that a particular cultural perspective might bar you from using other cultures to reflect upon and illuminate a text. That seems to be an insidious way of closing off debate. Whether what results is appropriate is, of course, a different matter entirely, and if you’re looking at something from the outside the scope exists to get things spectacularly wrong. But that should not become an argument for no-go areas which turn statements such as “Birmingham-born” and “second generation” into perjoratives. Where people come from is irrelevant. The only thing that matters is what appears on stage.

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