Shakespearean comedy set in India? What could be a gimmick turns out to be the perfect setting for one of the more classic Shakespearean comedies, with star turns from an excellent cast the pinnacle of a truly marvellous, subtle and engaging production – an unmitigated hit from the RSC.
Iqbal Khan (who seems to go from strength to strength) has directed his Indian Shakespeare with an incredibly subtle eye – while the Indian setting is immediately eye-catching and puts a pleasant spin on a rather well-known narrative, it also explains and advances the play in ways that less esoterically set productions often fail. For starters, he perfectly grasps the sudden switch to tragedy in the second half – Claudio's denunciation of his bride-to-be Hero (a misunderstanding orchestrated by the villain) is aggressive and unpleasant, and is normally born on the back of Claudio's passion for Hero. However, that's never rung true for me – if he is so in love, surely he will listen to her reasoning or forgive her transgression? But Khan's setting makes the dishonouring of the female genuinely frightening – in a culture where the concept of the honour killing still happens, it takes on a grim and believable twist.
Khan's interpretation throughout labours heavily on the role of women, and it's used to great effect in a piece that gives them plenty to do – Meera Syal may be the star booking as the viper-tongued Beatrice, but she more than lives up to the part with a similarly subtle performance: this is a Beatrice aware that her place in society is slipping away (as an unmarried middle-aged woman), witty but fearful of the strong male influences that surround her. Her romance with Benedick (Paul Bhattacharjee) is not only a meeting of like minds or a trick by their friends, but a chance for her to finally find love – and strong female character aside, it's a believeable twist on a classic locking-of-horns.
Bhattacharjee also puts in an excellent performance – a less self-sure Benedick, he truly becomes "the prince's jester" as the joker of the pack of UN peacekeepers (as the soldiers have become), and there is light-hearted joshing from all others (particularly punning on his name: Benedick becomes Bendy ... well you can guess the rest), but this just gives Bhattacharjee more of an opportunity to be more sly, more cunning and a much more rounded character than the poncy braggart Benedick so often becomes. But there is still subtext in this joking and fooling – a lot of sexualised references, but all very masculine – in counter to Gary Pillai's more effeminate Don John, making his distemper a potential reference to some of the more homophobic undertones that still exist in India today. And it's this clash between machismo and femininity, both from John and the female characters, that marks the whole piece.
It's all very, very meaty – there's plenty to sink your teeth into – but that really shouldn't stand in the way of how much fun the piece is. The comedy may have serious undertones, but it is still ribald and light, and the classic scenes (including Benedick and Beatrice hiding in plain sight while the others try and set them up with each other) are done to great effect. There's a slightly Bollywood vibe, with some dancing and maids and servants playing the fool (including Dogberry and Verges, here the pompous neighbours), but the show is not bound by it – although this is not Bhangra Shakespeare, it is a legitimate production of the piece in another place, and it works stunningly well.
And I haven't even mentioned the sumptuous set and costumes: Tom Piper has created a traditional market square to marvellously realistic effect, including Ciaran Bagnall's hot, smoky lighting, the gorgeous live music (including a very sweet Indian modernisation of "Sigh No More"), and some lovely hidden depths that come just when the emotions start to deepen – a lovely touch.
There's just so much to praise. There are only a few weak links (Anjana Vasan does a great job as Amara Karan's understudy, but doesn't have the age to make her relationship with Meera Syal sensible), but these are quickly forgotten. It stands to reason that the RSC would be at the top of staging Shakespeare in this country, but this is above and beyond what I had expected. This is easily one of the best productions, in terms of detail and enjoyment, that I have seen all year – I understand it's mostly sold out, but don't let that hinder you – queue round the block for a ticket.
The RSC transfer their major new production of Much Ado About Nothing to the N?el Coward Theatre this September as part of the celebrations for the World Shakespeare Festival. Iqbal Khan makes his RSC directorial debut with this vibrant and colourful production, which transposes Shakespeare's comedy of love and deceit to an Indian setting with Meera Syal in the lead role of Beatrice. Much Ado About Nothing is directed by Iqbal Khan whose credits include Broken Glass (Tricycle Theatre, 2011) and The Killing of Sister George (Arts Theatre, 2011).
Noel Coward Theatre85-88 St Martins Lane
London Greater London United Kingdom WC2N 4AU
Monday to Saturday 7.30pm, Thursday and Saturday 2pm
Paul Bhattacharjee (Benedick), Meera Syal (Beatrice) © Ellie Kurttz
Meera Syal (Beatrice), Amara Karan (Hero) © Ellie Kurttz
Madhav Sharma (Leonato), Amara Karan (Hero) © Ellie Kurttz
Sagar Arya (Claudio), Shiv Grewal (Don Pedro) © Ellie Kurttz