His Majesty’s Theatre, Haymarket
This is part of a long-running double act put on by the RSC (originally – then coming to London via Chichester) alongside Love’s Labour’s Lost, the setting of the two plays bracketing the First World War.
The first thing to note is that, while this production of Much Ado has been billed as “Love’s Labour’s Won” it is not being played as direct sequel. The only clear overlap (in both characters and casting) are Beatrice and Benedick and Rosaline and Berowne – otherwise, this is a juxtaposition designed to illuminate rather than a firm belief in equivalence. A good thing too, since otherwise it would have been very clear that Rosaline’s injunction to Berowne to purge himself of his “idle scorns” have fallen on very deaf ears…
So the cast swap roles somewhat, and the King of France (Sam Alexander) becomes Don John, bandaged and using a cane, while the overblown Don Armado (John Hodgkinson) becomes a fatherly Don Pedro, very much the senior officer looking after his men. The ladies were easier to separate out as well, and Emma Manton’s Margaret in particular really made the most of a small but difficult part.
The stately home setting this time felt pure Downton at Christmas – down to the ridiculously large tree (the army camp beds in the opening scene clearly belonged to season two of Downton – the one with the melty-face cousin and Matthew’s tingling – and I couldn’t make up my mind as to whether I wanted that level of bonkersness, or not. I didn’t get it either way…). It also helped to make sense of the incursion of Don Pedro and his men into Leonato’s life if his home was a billet.
The music felt more soundtrack and less part of a whole than in Love’s Labour’s Lost, but that could easily be overlooked in light of a gloriously hummable version of Come live with me and be my love. Other clear highlights were the ensnaring(s) of both Benedick (which made mighty fine use of that Christmas tree, and the cast’s ability to mimic a cat, in a lovely throwback to the rooftop scene in Love’s Labour’s Lost) and of Beatrice – which can be mighty hard not to feel like a re-tread of the previous scene but in fact managed to cause extra hilarity with the similarities (especially that cat). The examination scene, in a claustrophobic country hut, had wonderful moments of pure farce.
Much of the action flowed as beautifully as Lisa Dillon’s kimono – the gorgeous masked ball (with the men in dress uniforms), the snowy fake-funeral, the men gradually moving from uniform back to civilian garb. The scenes I always look out for – Leonato’s denunciation, Benedick’s calling out Claudio, and his open affection and support for Beatrice in her hour of need – were all handled extraordinarily well. Edward Bennett’s Benedick visibly matured into a match for Lisa Dillon’s fiery, scotch-swilling Beatrice (who I had no trouble imagining as an extremely competent nurse before the action began).
If I could leave my review there, I would have been extremely well satisfied. Unfortunately, one thing stuck in my craw, and that was the handling of the war wounded. Now, admittedly this is a particularly sensitive subject for me as I spend my free time (when not at the theatre) researching the lives of my former colleagues who served and fell during World War One. But it seemed glaring to me that the two men who seemed to have been damaged by the war were the villain and the comic relief. Don John’s injury was presented as in some way explaining (or at least accounting for) for his villainy. And we saw Dogberry experience what appeared to be shell-shock, yet we were still expected to laugh at him in his next appearance on stage. I would not have expected the production to shy away from presenting injured men, but I think that the message they chose to present could have been thought through more clearly. A wounded Benedick would have subverted our expectations of what a lead should be; a wounded Claudio might have shed an interesting light on his jealousy of Hero. But a crippled villain and a disordered laughing-stock? Not, in my view, meet food for Disdain…