Iqbal Khan’s Much Ado About Nothing, which recently transferred from Stratford to the Noel Coward Theatre in the West End, is part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s international Shakespeare season. It seems fitting, then, that Shakespeare’s comedy be given the South Asian makeover by the RSC, following this year’s all-black Julius Caesar. John Barton’s 1976 version of Much Ado took place in an Indian garrison during the British Raj; Khan’s interpretation, however, is the first to offer a post-colonial context, symbolised by blue beret-donning Indian soldiers returning from a UN peacekeeping mission.
The predominant themes of love, marriage, family and courtship on the face of it correlate completely with an Indian cultural setting, indeed a hip jiggle in the Bollywood direction. After Julius Caesar, one might ask whether the job of making Shakespeare relevant to a modern multicultural society is one of simply finding suitable ethnicities for suitable plays. However, these re-conceptions are nothing new and, in essence, when Shakespeare specifies Denmark, Verona or Tyre in his stage directions, they are very often nothing more than detail. In this sense the South Asian setting functions as a kind of decorative imagery, adding a colour to Shakespeare’s creative canvas which was not there before.
The pleasingly Asian-dominated audience on gala night, as well as everyone else in the audience, would have been entirely familiar with the subcontinental culture displayed on stage tonight. The production introduces Meera Syal to the stage for the first time, playing the part of Beatrice alongside fellow former Goodness Gracious Me co-star Kulvinder Ghir, who plays Borachio. These household name television stars added a new dimension to Shakespeare’s comedy.
Tom Piper’s impressive set, recreating a bustling Indian city, allowed the actors to improvise a hilarious introduction prior to the play which, in turn, gave them the excuse to interact with the audience. The sound designer, Andrew Franks, added a wonderful atmosphere whereby the honk of the tuk tuks and the call of the birds, constantly reaching over the walls of the set, created an Indian soundscape to match the landscape of modern Delhi.
The comedy of Much Ado dances around the games of courtship, and the way characters play hide-and-seek with their feelings; most significantly the characters of Beatrice and Benedict, played by Paul Bhattacharjee in this production. This behaviour is contrasted, to striking comic effect, with the overly-exaggerated Indian humour reminiscent of a Bollywood movie which allows for extreme caricatures, epitomised by the maid played by Anjana Vasan, to general amusement. Those of the lower orders are often seen larking around on stage, offering entertaining slapstick and regular mutterings in Hindi and Punjabi (not unlike the lives of Chowkidar in the many middle-class homes of India and Pakistan) are interwoven with the action. This keeps the amusement levels high, but sometimes interrupts the flow of the play. The Bollywood dance routine in the second half, which comes before the wedding, is an exception to this rule. A stand-out moment, where the Indian conceit truly embellishes the Shakespearean original. Niraj Chag, the London-based composer, offers superb music throughout, played by live musicians and singers. Unscripted musical interludes and comical asides, however, all contribute to the play’s slightly excessive three-and-a-quarter-hour duration, undoing the tension that is essential to a romantic comedy.
Ultimately, however, for all the aptness of a translocation, staging a Shakespeare play still depends almost entirely on the language. Every minute or two lost, where one zones out of the spoken word, following the action instead through physical comedy and sight gags, is a lost metaphor or expression from Shakespeare’s rich and dense verse. This is partly a result of bold directorial decisions to introduce sight gags, mime and modern technology (Beatrice overhears Bharti Patel’s Verges, for example, on a Smartphone) to modernise the action. Often the dialogue is humorously decorated with Hindi and colloquialisms such as nahi yaar, chalo, and one could hear the word ‘son’ substituted for the Punjabi Puttar in one of Leonato’s dialogues. These additions are certainly funny, in their own right, but one has to ask whether they have served the text.
Although the humour was well received by the audience, at times the ethnic gimmicks added to the post-Goodness Gracious Me and the Bollywoodesque clichés became quite tiresome. Furthermore, the marriage of an Indian setting to this particular Shakespearean play is both strategic and an example of intentional coincidence. That it is common for British society to presuppose the old classic stereotype, that Indian society is a culture obsessed with family ties, notions of izzat and long-winded Shaadi rituals and festivals.
Regarding the acting performances, Syal’s feisty, witty, brittle Beatrice makes an excellent foil for Bhattacharjee’s idly intelligent banter. Amara Karan offered a dignified Hero; she bore her unfair disgrace with so much poise that one longed for a more twenty-first-century resistance. Madhav Sharma stood out as Leonato, a fond but potentially dangerously deluded father to Hero, first betrothing and then threatening to kill his innocent daughter. The RSC’s Indian relocation of Shakespeare’s comedy is riotous and bombastic, and does at least present the ultimately very contemporary message: agitate for change, for equality in the wedding partnership, and the timeless message of the eternity of love.