The Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon plays host to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s latest adaptation of Shakespeare, a piece that as its predecessors have done, blurs conventional boundaries. The play in question, a production of Much Ado about Nothing is transported to present day Delhi, complete with an all-Indian cast.
The commitment to an overwhelming introduction is astounding; the audience (though the word “tourist” would more accurately reflect the expressions of cultural dislocation) are welcomed into the auditorium to a stage-full of loud Indians attempting to bring the washing in from a line that runs from balcony to balcony. Having little knowledge of the country itself or the customs of its people, I was reliably informed by my well-travelled hostess that this scene really was quite representative of the way of life there. The play does not so much start as progresses from the introductory vignette; some characters leave the stage, others begin to speak, and the audience are plunged, completely unawares, into the 400 year old comedy.
The show is only in its second week of performance and cannot yet boast perfection, but this rawness, however, transpires to be an asset rather than a hindrance. The Punjabi accent, for example, is an obvious stumbling block. The company were all assisted by an accent coach during rehearsals, but the combination of dated language and foreign tongues occasionally produced a dialect not unlike Irish. The unfaltering accents of Sagar Arya (Claudio), Bharti Patel (Verges), and Madhav Sharma (Leonato) are, needless to say, astounding, but even those that falter do not detract from the language. In fact, the stumbles (some deliberate – the pronunciation of “knave” as “kuh-nave” – some accidental) only seem to enhance the Shakespeare’s joyous wordplay. I would argue that a Shakespearean comedy performed with any accent would be funnier.
It would also be prevalent to note that Indian heritage does not inherently foster a talent for Bhangara dancing. Just as every English wedding features the uncle that takes to the dance floor to the mortification of his offspring, so the Indian wedding showcases the pure delight found in quite terrible dancing. The audience were not wowed into a West-End-Musical, awe-struck silence, but welcomed to share the evident, frivolous merriment.
The decision to set the comedy in Delhi was clearly more than an aesthetic choice. Whilst the set and costumes dazzled, the transportation of the piece sheds light onto social and cultural issues yet undiscovered and un-discussed. The issue of arranged marriage is not one we ever seem to view positively in the UK, but it is cleverly treated in Much Ado about Nothing. A traditional reading would dismiss Hero’s arranged engagement to Claudio as an antiquated or even archaic, but Amara Karan (Hero) and Meera Syal’s (Beatrice) stage contrast and chemistry brought the issue to the forefront, displaying India grappling with its new-found modernity- placid Hero’s decision-making passivity versus feisty Beatrice, the new, independent woman.
The production is a reminder that Shakespeare is no longer property of the English. It has been used countless times to tell the tale of the ages of England, but when brought into the wider context it tells us equally of cultures of which we are not a part. Picasso once said “art is a lie that brings us closer to the truth”, and it is astonishing to see that a fictional story written hundreds of years ago can paint such a vivid picture of a world it would never know existed. It truly is much ado about something.
Much Ado About Nothing runs at Noël Coward Theatre, London
24 Sept – 27 Oct 2012