It’s transfixing. His daughter Hero’s previously protested innocence suddenly restored, Leonato promptly sets about organizing his plan for her to remarry by tapping her matter-of-factly on the shoulder. She flinches in horror. A stunned silence grips players and audience as the overwhelming impact of his earlier lack of faith in her hits everyone between the eyes. There’s not a single textual reference in “Much Ado About Nothing” to this newly discovered moment — nor to the forgiving hug Hero then gives to erring Margaret — but it makes complete dramatic sense. It also typifies the invigorating intelligence driving Marianne Elliott’s exuberant production.
Received wisdom has “Much Ado” as one of Shakespeare’s weaker comedies, its overall tone confused by the tragic implications of the Hero/Claudio plot. Elliott’s Royal Shakespeare Company production banishes such judgments by revealing the full double edges of the play’s powerfully contradictory emotions.
For starters, Elliott literally heats up the atmosphere by setting everything in 1950s Cuba. This isn’t mere fancy. The play is crucially about men who are soldiers. Ideas about hierarchy and service are easily delineated as the men maneuver themselves in and out of uniform in lighting designer Neil Austin’s hot haze of a Cuban day.
Even as auds arrive, an eight-piece band above Lez Brotherston’s set of crumbling arches and ironwork-edged balconies lifts the energy level with Latin rhythms that explode into life in the second-act masked ball. Even there, it’s clear that everyone is not merely having a good time. In Susannah Broughton and Sarah Gorman’s dances, characters’ exotic carnival disguises grow impressively threatening.
Mercifully, however, the darkness Elliott discerns in the text is never allowed to subdue the comedy. This, after all, is the play remembered as the meet-cute, romantic comedy template: Beatrice and Benedick hate one another but marry one another.
Angular as scissors, Tamsin Greig, a bone-dry stalwart of cutting-edge TV comedy series including “Green Wing” and “Black Books,” is every inch “my lady disdain” of Benedick’s description. Every line and every look is delivered with whiplash timing, to enormous comic advantage. Like all true comedians, her precision allows her to stretch time. She sets up an expected reaction with a look, holds the moment, and only then delivers one of Shakespeare’s killer put-downs.
The downside is that her comedy is a little chilly. She’s so busy isolating herself from the man she hates/loves that Joseph Millson’s Benedick has to compensate for her lack of warmth.
However, Millson gives as good as he gets. Handsome, lean and preening, he’s amusingly arrogant until he’s hoodwinked into love by his friends. That gives him a comically long way to fall in the famous “gulling” scene in which his friends fool him into believing Beatrice is crazy about him. His dumbstruck silent reactions while finding 101 ways to hide behind a potted plant are extravagantly funny.
Both those scenes are quintessentially about hearsay, the dangerous side of which is illuminated by the other love plot. Everyone’s happiness is almost wrecked by a convincing rumor of Hero’s inconstancy, spread via the machinations of Jonny Weir’s magnificently glowering Don John. If Elliott’s production has a misstep, it’s the unnecessary addition of his closing moment in which he exits the action with a Che Guevara salute.
Elliott even solves the perennial problem of what to do with the scenes of ramshackle night-watchmen overseen by the usually unfunny Dogberry. In more make-up than most of the women, veteran drag performer Bette Bourne plays marvelously high-status as a doddering gay captain of the guard and savors every last syllable of his character’s language-mangling to high comic effect.
Adam Rayner is handsome and dim as easily led Claudio, well-partnered by Morven Christie’s young Hero, who grows perceptibly in understanding as the play’s events befall her.
The sheer power of the production peaks with the great ruined wedding scene. Claudio’s public shaming of Hero in the church is truly upsetting. The resultant coming together of Beatrice and Benedick as he acquiesces to her heartfelt wish that he “Kill Claudio” is riven with conflicting emotions, which Elliott pushes to the hilt so that they and auds are both laughing and crying.
Elliott’s riveting rendering of the play is as bold as it is faithful to the superbly spoken text. It represents the RSC in top form and, after the richness of her “Therese Raquin” at the National, confirms Elliott as a top-flight director.