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Reviewed by:
  • Much Ado About Nothingdir. by Iqbal Khan
  • Sita Thomas
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING. Directed by Iqbal Khan, featuring Meera Syal as Beatice. Royal Shakespeare Company. World Shakespeare Festival. Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. 108 2012

In August 2012, Meera Syal made history by being the first woman of South Asian heritage to play Beatrice on stage for the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). The production, directed by Iqbal Khan of Much Ado About Nothing, was set in contemporary Delhi—the Indian soldiers returned from a United Nations peacekeeping mission; the Watch were servants in Leonato’s grand haveli(private mansion), and Beatrice was a contemporary Indian woman, treading a line between tradition and modernization within the patriarchal society of both Shakespeare’s Messina and modern Delhi. The director’s and actor’s interpretation of the character engaged with debates embedded in Shakespeare’s text, and drew twenty-first-century resonances regarding contemporary gender politics.

The genesis of the production began with an invitation for Syal to join the company by Michael Boyd (RSC artistic director 2003–2012). She had never before performed Shakespeare professionally, but had played Caliban in a school production of The Tempest. “I didn’t understand it,” she said, “and played the role for broad comedy, as one would at fourteen” (Conner 2012). Since then, Syal has worked across film and television, and in musicals and sitcoms, and she has written a novel, Anita and Me(1996). In many ways she is the foremost representative of the British Asian experience in popular culture through, for instance, her groundbreaking BBC television comedy Goodness Gracious Me(1998–2001). Her return to Shakespeare as Beatrice for the RSC was, she said in the Conner interview, “scary,” but perfectly matched to her talents. The fact that Syal was not invited to perform at the RSC until the context of celebrating internationalism in the World Shakespeare Festival speaks to the state of diverse casting in British theatre. For a detailed analysis of the politics of casting and the marginalization of black and Asian actors in mainstream Shakespearean performance, see Jami Roger’s “The Shakespearean Glass Ceiling: The State of Colorblind Casting in Contemporary British Theatre” (2013).

The audience’s first encounter with Syal’s Beatrice took place in a pre-show, using improvised dialogue. She entered with Balthasar and approached the front row of the stalls. He provokingly tried to persuade Beatrice to marry a suitor—a middle-aged, balding Indian businessman—whose picture he displayed on his iPad. Indignant and outraged, Beatrice mocked him and left to find sanctuary upstage in a window seat. She put on her sunglasses, lit a cigarette, and hid behind an iPad of her own. Here was an image of a modern Indian woman firmly refusing the prospect of an arranged marriage, shunning old mindsets steeped in patriarchy, and at one with the rapidly changing socioeconomic climate in the digital era. In her analysis of the roles of women in the play, Syal suggested: “The women have a line they have to tread throughout. Their freedoms only extend so far, it’s like being on a leash and the minute you step too far you’re yanked back. And Beatrice treads that line [End Page 570]quite dangerously in the first half” (Royal Shakespeare Company 2012: 5). This was demonstrated in her interactions with Leonato (Madhav Sharma), in which a clear gender hierarchy was established. Whenever Beatrice was seen to be crossing the line defining “acceptable” behavior, Leonato stepped in to curtail her transgressive actions. During her verbal sparring match with Benedick, Leonato placed his controlling hand on Beatrice’s shoulder to force her into submission and later worked extratextually, interrupting her with a loud shout—“ Beti!” (Daughter)—that brought her verbal exchanges to a halt. Beatrice’s clothes reflected contemporary Delhi fashion—a stylishly cut suit jacket, pencil skirt, and shiny red heels. In these shoes, Beatrice trod the unstable metaphorical line between this construction of feminine modernity and an adherence to socially ingrained gender hierarchies.

For Syal, the clear relevance of the text to Indian sociopolitics became unlocked during the rehearsals of act 4, scene 1. “At the centre of the...