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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

Much Ado About Nothing
Live From Stratford-upon-Avon and BBC Culture In Quarantine 2020

This is the Shakespeare comedy about the bickering couple Benedick and Beatrice, whose friends trick them into admitting to themselves what has been obvious to us that they actually love each other. A subplot has a groom conned into abandoning his bride at the altar and having to make up for it later.

This Royal Shakespeare Company production was staged and recorded in Stratford in 2014, and revived (with some cast changes) for a short London run in 2016-17, and I have to start with a confession.

I had completely forgotten seeing it in 2016, and watching the video version did not jog my memory. I had to look up my old review (which is here) and still can't really remember it. I can now see why, as it is a mix of good moments and missed opportunities, ending up mildly pleasant rather than wholly successful.

The core of the comedy is the way the central couple are tricked and how that affects their behaviour. For each of them it is a staged eavesdropping scene, with their friends saying things deliberately to be overheard and the listeners falling for it and reacting while trying to remain (as they think) unseen.

Director Christopher Luscombe and actor Edward Bennett have a lot of fun with Benedick's scene, finding comical things to do with some draperies, a Christmas tree, and a glass of liquor. But the parallel scene involving Michelle Terry's Beatrice finds no laughs, or any other emotional effect, at all.

To some extent that is a matter of casting. Throughout the play Edward Bennett is an excellent clown, particularly effective at double-takes and engaging with the audience, while Michelle Terry, while managing some enjoyably wry line readings, does not really display any real feeling for comedy.

In all their scenes together it is clearly he who is carrying her, and her comic scenes without him are uniformly weaker than his without her.

But this is also largely a directorial failure is evident in the fact that I made the same complaint about another actress in the role in my 2016 review.

Elsewhere the clownish night watch are more successfully funny than many productions manage to make them, largely through the understated foolishness of Nick Haverson's Dogberry and an overlay of generally irrelevant but hilarious slapstick and physical comedy.

Tunji Kasim and Flora Spencer-Longhurst are, through no failings of their own, exactly as bland and near-invisible as most actors are playing the couple in the subplot.

The play is set at the end of a war, and director Luscombe and designer Simmon Higlett put it in 1918, to no particular purpose. Except for an opening scene that suggests that Leonato's house had been a makeshift hospital and the women all volunteer nurses, and a little (slightly anachronistic?) Charleston dancing later, the period is never evoked or used.

Instead, as sometimes happens at the RSC, scenic design sometimes feels like an end in itself, with that hospital tableau, an ornate drawing room, a pop-up billiard table and an elaborate cemetery set calling attention to themselves more than they serve the play.

The video version is polished and professional, using and cutting among several cameras to good effect.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Much Ado About Nothing - RSC online 2020