There hasn't been any really top-notch, kill-your-Granny-for-a-ticket Shakespeare in mainstream London theatre this year, with the exception of Coriolanus at the Globe. All the more reason to welcome back the Royal Shakespeare Company with Much Ado About Nothing. This one's set in pre-Castro Cuba, which means a lot of cigar-smoking and a band up above the stage playing Buena Vista Social Club music. And why not? It works very well, though no better than Greg Doran's version for the RSC four years ago, which was set in Mussolini's Italy. Basically, I think you can move it anywhere -- I've even seen it transposed to British India in the Victorian era with no ill effects. Perhaps one day Katie Mitchell will shift it to the North Pole or the Kalahari Desert.
It's a good production, intelligently directed by rising star Marianne Elliott, also responsible for Pillars of the Community a year ago, and more recently Therese Raquin. Last night was press night, so the laughs from fellow actors in the audience came thick and fast. My only reservations were prompted by the watch scenes, which were less funny than they should have been. Bette Bourne as Dogberry seemed to be basing his interpretation on Corporal Jones in Dad's Army. That would have been fine (Corporal Jones is one of my heroes) but he was not always fully audible. It was a performance that would have worked well in a smaller space than the Novello, but needed a bit more projection. In the supporting parts I liked the thoroughly evil Jonny Weir as Don John and the thoroughly innocent Morven Christie as Hero. Both of them found something extra in roles which are basically one-dimensional.
As Beatrice and Benedick Tamsin Greig and Joseph Millson make a convincingly odd couple. Both of them are young and flirty, which is possibly a handicap in exploiting the unlikely nature of their lovemaking. Greig has a great sense of comic movement and timing and dominates the stage. The transition from knockabout comedy to serious emotion after the rejection of Hero by Claudio is well handled. Millson is very good too, but I felt that he was too young to extract the maximum from the part. Four years ago in Doran's production we had the sublime Harriet Walter and Nicholas le Prevost, both of them fiftyish, as Beatrice and Benedick. It's much easier to play a confirmed bachelor when you're that age. Ditto the spinster on the shelf. Millson plays Benedick as a randy young blade, probably the only possible interpretation for an actor of his relatively tender years. What goes missing is the sense of a middle-aged couple who start behaving like silly teenagers -- which I think is what Shakespeare intended. Harriet Walter was in the audience last night, and I'm looking forward to seeing her failing to act her age all over again when she appears as Cleopatra next year.