Much ado about India

Much Ado About Nothing, Courtyard Stratford, 11 August 2012

The audience was introduced to the world of the production before setting foot in the auditorium. The foyer of the theatre was festooned with Indian posters, packaging, bicycles and assorted paraphernalia with the intermittent sound of enthusiastic car horns completing the impression of a crowded Indian city.

Once inside, they were greeted by the sight of the yellow-washed exterior of a large house in front of which stood a huge tree whose top branches spread underneath the flies.

Some of the cast milled about the stage before the start engaging with the audience. It fell to Dogberry (Simon Nagra) to request in broken English that phones be switched off.

The authentic localising detail and humour created a thrilling atmosphere of expectation. Leonato (Madhav Sharma) entered in modern Indian dress through the centre aisle with his informative letter. Eyes fixed on Meera Syal’s Beatrice as the moment of her first speech drew closer.

It was therefore a great disappointment to find Meera Syal talking through gritted teeth, deploying a basic set of sitcom grimaces. Depriving Beatrice of dimension, she seemed to be treading the same path as that other mediocre Beatrice delivered by Catherine Tate the previous year in London.

The rest of cast stood motionless raising the terrifying prospect of the following three hours consisting of static blocking and sitcom-level acting.

But all was not lost. A flash of creative intelligence and sensitivity soon provided comfort. Don Pedro’s (Shiv Grewal) Indian army soldiers entered in UN peacekeeper uniforms. Given the contemporary, modern dress setting, the only conflict from which the Indian army could be returning would be Kashmir, implying military action against Pakistan. Given the inclusive nature of the cast and general air of peaceful good vibes, making these soldiers UN peacekeepers avoided possible accusations of insensitivity.

The first meeting between Benedick (Paul Bhattacharjee) and Beatrice was still firmly in sitcom mode. The bald Don John (Gary Pillai) made a moderate impact. Claudio (Sagar Arya) seemed suitably earnest in conversation with the slightly greying Benedick. But so far the production had not really found its feet or taken off. However, Benedick did raise a titter describing himself as “Bendy Dick the married man”.

For some reason Meera’s Beatrice improved remarkably in the second act. Gone were the gritted teeth and grimacing as her voice returned to normal (2.1). The women entered wearing berets and army jackets which they had acquired as disguises to wear at the ball. This indicated that they had already been fraternising with the returning soldiers.

Beatrice referred to herself as a maid: the ensuing snigger from Margaret (Chetna Pandya) prompted an “Oi!” of jokey admonishment from Beatrice. Her sarcastic impression of dutiful Hero (Amara Karan) added to the fun atmosphere.

The text was altered so that Beatrice saw a temple, rather than a church, by daylight. But subsequent instances showed that the rewriting of the cultural context was inconsistent.

Everyone cross-dressed at the ball; the women wore their military uniforms with mannish affectations, while the men covered their heads with shawls displaying exaggerated female coyness. Pairs of characters exchanged garlands. When it was Benedick and Beatrice’s turn, they did so sheepishly, hinting at the possibility of the mutual attraction underlying their bickering.

The comedy of the dance sequence contained some funny moments. Margaret made a lewd gesture when speaking to Balthasar (Raj Bajaj) of her “ill qualities” suggesting her availability. Verges (Bharit Patel), a character merged with that of Ursula, caught up with Antonio (Ernest Ignatius) hiding at the edge of the stage and broke out of her manly disguise to accost him.

Having been taunted by Don John and Borachio (Kulvinder Ghir) with the idea that Don Pedro had wooed Hero for himself, the idea was further reinforced when Don Pedro appeared with his arm around Hero as if intimate with her.

When Don Pedro explained what had actually happened, Claudio remained suitably silent.

Meera Syal continued to impress with her moving delivery of “but then there was a star danced, and under that was I born.” From this point on there was no question over the quality of her performance.

Borachio explained to Don John precisely how he could arrange for Hero to appear unfaithful (2.2). He dry humped Don John when explaining what he would appear to be doing with Margaret.

Inventive

The two gulling scenes are the comic highlights of any Much Ado and this production did not disappoint, even managing to be daringly inventive.

Benedick called on a maid rather than a boy to fetch his book before sitting on a swing hung from the tree to pitch slowly back and forth (2.3).

The maid heartily joined in a Bhangra version of Sigh No More as Benedick climbed the tree to access the balcony and then listened from the top of house. After trying unsuccessfully to give the book to Benedick, the Maid was drawn into the action so that she acted Beatrice’s pretended part in the gullers’ account, describing her purported love for Benedick.

Despite its attempts to rewrite the cultural context of the play, the production kept the phrase “Christian-like fear” in this scene, which must have defied attempts at rewriting.

The Maid threw herself into this role with gusto as she cried and beat the ground in a simulation of Beatrice’s supposed frustration. When she cried “O sweet Benedick” the man himself cried out “Beatrice” from above, but was not noticed.

When Beatrice delivered the dinner invitation she began to say “I am sent…” but her voice trailed off when she saw Benedick’s peculiarly attentive way of looking at her. For some odd reason his “If I do not love her, I am a Jew” was retained.

The sequence involving Beatrice was particularly ingenious (3.1). Beatrice was ushered in by Margaret and sat at the bottom of the tree with a towel round her head and depilatory cream on her upper lip. She then overheard Verges using the speakerphone on her mobile to have a conversation with Hero (visible within the house) about Benedick’s hidden love for Beatrice.

Beatrice did not remain out of sight, but instead caught Verges’ eye, making it plain that she understood the tenor of the discussion. The embarrassed Verges began to defend Beatrice to Hero, using the phrase “O, do not your cousin such a wrong” effectively changing sides. This was a remarkable use of the original text which was able to slot perfectly into this most unusual reading of the situation.

Verges’ “I pray you, be not angry with me, madam” was said to Beatrice and not Hero, communicating Verges’ sudden guilt at the discovery of their subterfuge. Beatrice then gestured at Verges to be critical of Hero, so she asked her “When are you married, madam?” in an supercilious tone.

Once the game was over, Beatrice wiped the cream from her lip and removed the towel from her head, looking extremely crestfallen at the realisation of how she was seen.

Benedick sported a new look wearing a green dressing gown with his hair dyed, all of which made him almost unrecognisable (3.2). His remade image fully justified Leonato’s comment “He looks younger than he did”.

Don John’s reveal of Hero’s unfaithfulness was very snide. Claudio jostled him, prompting Don John’s retort “So will you say when you have seen the sequel”, implying that Claudio would be angry when he knew the truth. After this, the interval came.

The second half began with Beatrice singing a soulful version of Sigh No More, first in Hindi and then in English (3.3).

The watch, including George Seacole (Rudi Dharmalingam) and Hugh Oatcake (Muzz Khan) wore comical hats and were led by Dogberry who put a hard “k” at the start of “knave” so that he pronounced it “ker-nave”. He pointed a torch at the audience scanning for a thief and scared the watch into attacking him when he returned unexpectedly to have his “one word more”.

Rain fell as Borachio told Conrade (Neil D’Souza) about his profitable skulduggery. The watch observed the pair at a distance while one of them approached and held an umbrella over Borachio undetected. So perfect was this watchman’s invisibility that Borachio urinated over him when caught short.

Finally challenged by the watch, Borachio and Conrade were so drunk that they surrendered without a fight.

Hero and Margaret sat under the tree on a platform which had been introduced for the second half, preparing for Hero’s wedding day (3.4). The scene was interrupted as the platform went dark making way for the scene between Leonato and Dogberry on the main part of the stage (3.5). Dogberry gold-plated his malapropism by mispronouncing it “con-fie-dence”. Don John watched this all the while from the gallery.

Wedding

Hero’s wedding saw the theatre transformed (4.1). Strings of lights festooned the galleries, and everything glowed with the full colour of a Hindi wedding. Three couples were brought from the audience to sit on cushions to fill out the number of guests on stage. Music played and the whole audience was encouraged to clap along.

The entry of the bride was a breathtaking moment. Hero appeared in a splendid dress looking like a princess. A Panditji (Robert Mountford), the production’s Indian priest, began to perform the wedding ceremony. A handheld microphone was passed around to those speaking to amplify their voices.

Claudio took the microphone and spoke into it to reject Hero. The devastating impact of his words on the sumptuous ceremony meant that there was no need for him to throw her to the ground: she looked totally discarded anyway, the tears in her eyes contrasting with the splendour of her surroundings.

The build-up to the wedding had been made as protracted, colourful and joyous as possible so that its unravelling would feel all the more devastating. The implosion of this scene powered the rest of the second half with all the characters being carried along in its blast wave.

Don John sat nearest to Hero, looking on, like a venomous spider at the centre of a web. Leonato mistook Claudio’s initial objection for a confession that he had already slept with Hero and was quite funny and pally trying to convince him that this was not an obstacle. Tellingly, Benedick’s joke “This looks not like a nuptial” was cut to remove any humour that might deflate the sense of disaster.

Leonato’s fury at Hero was restrained. He brought his hand close to her, but the gesture was weak and did not look really threatening. But he seemed determined to vent his anger at someone.

In wake of Claudio’s bombshell, Beatrice and Benedick drew together as she placed her head in his lap overcome with shock. Only the Panditji offered a calm perspective and eventually proposed a solution.

Beatrice and Benedick sat close on the swing. Her demand that Benedict kill Claudio got a laugh, but the line was delivered in all seriousness and should have been greeted by gasps.

The earnestness of her request was underlined by the way she tussled with him when saying that Claudio was her enemy, and by the depth of feeling behind her desire to “eat his heart in the market-place”.

Dogberry brought together his “dissembly” in front of the Sexton (Peter Singh) (4.2). Borachio and Conrade were presented tied back to back, the awkwardness of which resulted in them ending up one on top of the other when presented to the Sexton on the platform. The accused men looked gutted on hearing of Hero’s death.

Leonato caught up with Don Pedro and Claudio as they were leaving his house with their kitbags in uniform (5.1). Despite Leonato presenting a very good impression of an angry man, Claudio was not fazed by his aggression.

Benedick, on the other hand, posed a more serious threat. He was very serious about his challenge to Claudio and had considerably manned-up. This transformation is difficult to get right if Benedick has up to now been portrayed as a clownish figure.

Dogberry brought in Borachio and Conrade while Leonato and Antonio entered down the centre aisle to see Borachio. Don Pedro and Claudio faced away from Borachio, but Leonato stood between them “a pair of honourable men” and accused them of being jointly responsible for the tragedy, prompting them to turn around.

Benedick sung tunelessly to Margaret before his romantic encounter with Beatrice (5.2). Beatrice possessed some of her former sharpness. They sat on the swing as he held her hand asking her to “Serve God, love me and mend”. The comedy of Benedick’s enthusiasm to be, among other things, buried in Beatrice’s eyes, was subdued in keeping with the increasing seriousness of their attachment.

The production’s coup de théâtre involved the set, which had hitherto represented the façade of a house, folding back to reveal a burning funeral pyre underneath a tower structure, possibly attached to a temple, on which Hero had apparently been cremated (5.3).

Mourners stood around looking sombre under their umbrellas in the rain, including a distraught Claudio who read aloud his praises. The song “Pardon, goddess of the night” was sung by someone else on top of the tower above the pyre.

The action remained at the temple for the second wedding (5.4). Women entered from upstage under veils. Hero was unmasked but Claudio’s surprise at seeing her again after her cremation was strangely muted.

When Benedick enquired which of the veiled women was Beatrice, she realised what he was planning, turned and ran away. But she was swiftly brought back, in all likelihood quite willingly. Letters were produced so that each could read proof that the other loved them.

Leonato said “Peace! I will stop your mouth” and brought them together to kiss. This was as per the Quarto text and Arden 3, but still very unusual to see.

The performance concluded with lively dancing continuing the festive atmosphere.

Conclusions

Plays become classics by transcending their culture of origin and are therefore able to slip free from all subsequently imposed cultural contexts.

This production demonstrated how a cultural relocation can easily be trumped and overshadowed by the genius of the play itself. It came as no surprise that this love story could survive relocation to India. After a while the Indian setting took second place to situation and character.

But only up to a point. Hero’s rejection exploded like a bombshell amid a gloriously beautiful wedding scene, giving that moment a traumatic power that most productions rarely achieve. The aftershock reverberated through the remainder of play. This effect could have been achieved in a number of ways but it fell to this Indian adaptation to demonstrate that the bigger the build-up to the wedding, the starker the impact of its interruption.

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