The RSC’s recent Africa-set Julius Caesar was a brilliant piece of work on so many levels and, as a result, I had similarly high hopes for its companion piece in the World Shakespeare Festival, the company’s Bollywood take on Much Ado About Nothing. But while visually stunning, Iqbal’s Khan’s over-long production is an oddly flat experience, one with a tendency to favour slapstick over subtlety, fatally undermined by a total lack of chemistry between its romantic leads.
Things begin promisingly – even as you take your seats you are assaulted by the sights and sounds of Delhi: actors yell at you and at each other from the stage as they tidy away laundry, clearing a space for the forthcoming action. Everything looks fantastic: Tom Piper’s set and Himani Dehlvi’s costumes are gorgeous, richly evocative of contemporary India, and it’s when the production plays up these strengths that it works best; the masked ball where the men wear saris and the women military jackets is both intelligently and beautifully staged, and the aborted wedding looks dazzling.
But so much of the play’s humour feels drawn out: the sluggish direction means that there are often long gaps between laughs and the pacing constantly feels in need of tightening. The performances are solid rather than exceptional, and everyone seems to be struggling with the emotional undercurrents of the text. Meera Syal’s Beatrice has a nice line in acid disdain but she is less convincing as the distraught would-be avenger of her cousin’s dishonour; as her sparring partner, Benedick, Paul Bhattacharjee brings a likeable, lanky charm to the role, but he too flounders slightly when the tone darkens: he lacks the sense of the soldier behind the cynic, so his challenge to Claudio never feels dangerous, and that whole plot strand feels over-hasty in its resolution. Crucially, the central pair lack some vital connection; their bantering is entertaining enough, but fails to generate any sexual spark, which makes the ending feel slightly pat as a consequence.
In the always thankless role of Hero, Amara Karan is beautiful but slightly bland: charming when girly and giggly, conspiring to deceive Beatrice about Benedick’s affections, but never quite believable as the devastated bride. Claudio, too, is always a tough sell – a tricky balance of youthful, impetuous romanticism too easily tipped into rage by jealousy – but Sagar Arya’s take seems more callous than naïve, and Claudio’s remorse over the ‘death’ of his supposed love remarkably fleeting: frankly, their reconciliation leaves you feeling less like you’ve witnessed a romantic resolution, more that you’ve seen Hero palmed off on a misogynistic bully and a grade A prick, which rather dents the feelgood ending. Shiv Grewal makes a charismatic Don Pedro, with Gary Pillai suitably malevolent as his illegitimate brother (though I was a little uncomfortable with the decision to imply that the scheming villain of the piece was gay; it felt retrogressive and unnecessary).
The supporting cast are energetic and make much of the ensemble scenes, with some nice moments of physical comedy, especially from Neil D’Souza and Kulvinder Ghir as Don John’s dim-witted cronies, but again there are times when even these scenes feel as if they could have been sharpened; too many of the jokes are allowed to wear thin. Comedy should never outstay its welcome, and at nearly three hours, Khan’s production threatens to do just that. It’s never a good sign when you leave the theatre thinking mainly about how pretty the costumes and the sets were, but that’s the case here. Both play and performers felt swamped by the production’s admittedly lush trappings. While this Much Ado is packed with small pleasures, these never cohere into a satisfying whole, and the piece never lives up to its considerable promise.