A social media view of Much Ado
By MICHAEL CAINES
The RSC's "Indian" Much Ado About Nothing officially begins its London run tonight; and this is what Act 2 Scene 3 will look like from the stalls, courtesy of what is apparently something of a novelty at the moment: a theatre company holding a social media call.
That's Anjana Vasan as a maid on the swing next to a tree (both of which now seem to be quite common features of productions of Shakespeare comedy, whether an "arbour" is required or not), shortly to be packed off by Benedick to fetch a book from his chamber-window. No witty boy answering back, impudently unwilling to carry out his instructions ("I am here already, sir"), for Paul Bhattacharjee's serious soldier and enemy to love.
And note the musicians lurking upstage, under the arches, ready to accompany a tabla-driven performance of "Sigh No More" sung by Balthasar (Raj Bajaj). The danger for most productions is that this famous song delays the action; here it becomes a fabulous opportunity for dancing (that maid again) and briefly acting out a show of patriarchal tyranny (ie, the maid gets put in her place).
In other words, it was an enticing taste of the show for those who hadn't had a chance to see it in Stratford upon Avon, matched by an interesting Q and A session afterwards. The director Iqbal Kahn of this all-Asian production said that he thought Much Ado might be Shakespeare's best comedy, not just a "romp". Bhattacharjee dismissed the "traditional" conventions of performing Shakespeare (all RP, all white) as a relatively recent invention. Another member of the cast backed up that point by mentioning that he'd acted in more than thirty Shakespeare plays; a third likened the powerful combination of Shakespearean language and Indian accents to the discovery (or rediscovery) some decades ago that (shock! horror!) blank verse and Northern accents do mix. It reminded me of talking to another Benedick some years ago – Tom Mannion at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park – who'd happily discovered (or rediscovered) the effect on the audience of pronouncing "yea" in a modern way: "yeah".
Like much of this year's World Shakespeare Festival, that's the kind of irreverence that contrasts refreshingly with the underlying attitude of "Original Practices" productions – follow that link, to Katherine Duncan-Jones's recent review of various Shakespeare productions, for one invidious side effect of sticking to doublets, hoses and all-male casts.