When I first spotted the adverts for the RSC's current production of Much Ado About Nothing featuring Meera Syal, it was one of those rare moments when you feel as if you couldn't think of anyone more perfect for a role. As far as live performance is concerned, I think the only comparable occasion for me was seeing David Tennant as Berowne in Love's Labour's Lost. In both cases, the combination of actor and part was every bit as hilarious as you could hope. As Beatrice, Syal's wit sparkled. Paul Bhattacharjee matched her comic timing and cleverness as Benedick, and the interplay and chemistry between them was endlessly entertaining.
Elsewhere, some of the more commonly sidelined characters were really given a chance to shine. Hero, perhaps one of the least desirable roles in Shakespeare, was given much more of a personality - she seemed a bit of a party girl. Although she was ultimately willing to submit to a man about whom she knew very little, she did spend the final few days before her marriage having fun on her own terms, partying hard with her cousin Beatrice, her maid Margaret (here transformed into an uber-chav with a bright pink frilly Jordan-esque dress for the wedding) and even the Prince. Amara Khan did a great job of transforming this passive character into a much more active presence. I recognised the actress from an episode of Doctor Who ("The God Complex") that I'd recently rewatched, and it occurred to me then what a great companion she would have made: something like Martha Jones, except with a much more interesting backstory. Like Martha, Khan's character was a doctor, but unlike Martha, she was revealed to have had a troubled past with many childhood demons to work through. As an actress, I also felt that her performance was a lot more compelling than Freema Agyeman's. Perhaps it could still happen - actors are known for returning to Doctor Who. In any case, Amara Khan is definitely one to watch.
My absolute favourite character in this production, however, was Dogberry. Simon Nagra proved to be hilarious even before the play actually began. As the audience entered, Dogberry was already busy greeting the members of his watch by pulling them along by their ears and telling the audience off about mobile phones and ipads. He also announced the end of the interval to all the "gentlemans and ladies". We've been quoting his "kuh-naves" here ever since we left the theatre.
I thought that the setting worked wonderfully. Not only the stage, but the whole of the Courtyard theatre was beautifully decorated, transformed into a sunny and, in the foyer at least, noisy, Indian city. It has occurred to me before that certain of Shakespeare's plays - Romeo and Juliet, for example - might work very well in a contemporary fundamentalist Islamic setting. This play, however, explored the possibilities of an Asian setting for some of Shakespeare's work without getting into the kind of religio-politics that most westerners would probably expect from such a modernisation. Instead of a culture clinging to a dogmatic religious conservatism, we catch a glimpse instead of a nation in transition, a culture in which, as Jyotsna G. Singh explains in the programme, the roles of women and of marriage are changing and transforming where the very new and modern clashes with the very old. As in Romeo and Juliet, we see in Much Ado a conflict between generations, between the old and the young - but if the youth in Much Ado are not so rebellious as in Romeo and Juliet, neither are the older folks quite so strict or stuffy.
It's really fascinating to see the issues of women's rights and women's roles addressed from such a perspective. Here we have a middle ground between the relative freedom enjoyed by women in contemporary secular Britain, and the oppression suffered by those in strict religious communities. The result is something strange, where no one quite seems to know their proper roles - what they should be doing, what they ought to be worrying about - and those who come out best - that is, Beatrice and Benedick - are those apparently least concerned with their reputation, with issues of should and should not except on clear moral grounds, when a particular course of action causes hurt to another.
At a time when violence against Asians in the US is growing in response to terrorist activities, it's also exciting and important to be given insights like this into cultures that are often misreprestented and portrayed and understood in such a limited way in the west. So undiscerning are America's angry mob today that numerous Sikhs, Hindus and others (yes, even Christians) have suffered violence and abuse at their hands as well as Muslims, the intended targets of the attacks - though, as Nitsuh Abebe points out here, it essentially matters little - all discriminatory violence of this sort stems from ignorance and stupidity, and is unacceptable regardless of whom it affects. Most incredible of all, perhaps, is the comment at the end of the article above in which someone says that they were once told to "Go back to Africa you Indian". Given the ridiculousness of the statement in the first place, it's perhaps unsurprising that the target of this was neither African nor Indian. When so many white westerners can conceive of the world in such simplistic terms - where everything and everyone non-white and non-western might as well be the same - it's refreshing to see the complexities and intricacies of other cultures explored in any sort of high-profile way.
All serious notes aside, however, this was a thoroughly enjoyable and very very clever production that I'd recommend to anyone - Shakespeare buff or not. It was great to read that some of the actors involved - all of whom were brilliant - had reckoned that they couldn't "do Shakespeare", but that doing this play had changed their minds. Lets hope it changes the minds of a few new theatre-goers too!