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Reviewed by:
  • Much Ado About Nothing
  • Justin B. Hopkins
Much Ado About Nothing Presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, England. July 26–September 15, 2012. Directed by Iqbal Khan. Set by Tom Piper. Costumes by Himani Dehlvi. Lighting by Ciaran Bagnall. Music by Niraj Chag. Sound by Andrew Franks. Choreography and Movement by Struan Leslie. Fights by Kev McCurdy. With Meera Syal (Beatrice), Paul Bhattacharjee (Benedick), Shiv Grewal (Don Pedro), Sagar Arya (Claudio), Amara Karan (Hero), Madhav Sharma (Leonato), Gary Pillai (Don John), Simon Nagra (Dogberry), Bharti Patel (Verges), Chetna Pandya (Margaret), Kulvinder Ghir (Borachio), Neil D’Souza (Conrade), Robert Mountford (Panditji: Friar Francis), Ernest Ignatius (Antonio), Raj Bajaj (Balthasar), Darren Kuppan (Messenger), Rudi Dharmalingam (George Seacole), Muzz Khan (Hugh Oatcake), Peter Singh (Francis Seacole: Sexton), and Aysha Kala and Anjana Vasan (Maids).

Subcontinental sights and sounds filled the Courtyard Theatre foyer. Car horns beeped and bicycle bells rang—some of those same cycles hanging suspended from the ceiling. Flowery garlands, sacks of seeds, baskets and buckets littered the lobby. Bollywood posters plastered the gift-shop walls. Before I even entered the auditorium, Tom Piper’s immersive design brought me to India.

Inside, Piper had transformed the Courtyard stage into the courtyard of a contemporary Indian household, paved with red brick, framed by stucco arches and metal railings, and shaded by a tall tree, its branches and trunk tangled with strings and kites and cables and lights and laundry lines. As I settled into my seat, day dawned in India. Housekeeper Verges—later absorbing Ursula’s part as well—emerged, calling for the maids, who giggled and hid. Discovered, they reluctantly began their chores. [End Page 292]

Other members of the family and staff joined the morning business. A boy rode a bike on, bringing vegetables in a basket on the back. Another young man carried on a bag of rice and accidentally spilled its contents. The maids rushed to sweep up the mess. Hero and Margaret returned from an early shopping trip and modeled their purchases. Beatrice entered onto the balcony above, sat resting her bare feet on the banister, and read a red-backed tablet through dark sunglasses. Eventually she made her way below, engaging the audience, showing us a photo on the tablet of “a lively young professor looking for a wife.” Did she subscribe to an online dating service? Perhaps, but she remained unimpressed, informing us: “I’m still holding out for George Clooney.”

Dogberry—here a sort of steward rather than constable—officiously delivered the anti-mobile phone warning and surveyed the audience, nodding his bright orange-turbaned head approvingly at the absence of photographers: “Nobody is taking camera—very well-behaved!” And finally Leonato and the Messenger appeared, speaking the first lines of Shakespeare’s script.

Plainly, director Iqbal Khan had spent plenty of time and energy setting the scene, with much success. He and Tom Piper, along with costumer Himani Dehlvi and sound designer Andrew Franks, crafted a detailed, delightful representation of modern Indian life. The context was convincing and compelling. But what about the text?

Some critics considered Khan to have failed to fully deliver both the basic comedy of the play and the intercultural insight the production promised; sadly, I cannot disagree. At least on August 4, when I attended, the potential went unfulfilled. In particular, I shared Michael Billington’s frustration (recorded in his Guardian review two days earlier) at Khan’s “overlook[ing] a simple fact that strikes any visitor to India—the fastidious precision in the use of the English language.” Unfortunate and near-universal speeding and slurring aside, I wondered whether Dogberry’s malapropisms—both scripted and ad-libbed—didn’t cross some line separating harmless caricature and insulting stereotype. His inability to speak proper English could comment good-naturedly on cultural differences, or it might cast aspersions of a more comprehensive and less politically correct nature. Neither reading really amused me.

Nor could I laugh much at either of those key scenes showing the gulling of Benedick and Beatrice. Both felt flat and forced. Benedick began by asking a maid to fetch him a book, then sat on a...


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