Prerna Agarwal finds that, like a Bollywood drama, this adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing draws its vitality from sentimentality and melodrama.

Benedick and Beatrice, the bickering couple from Shakespeare’s famous comedy Much Ado About Nothing, have found a new place to engage in their merry war — our very own Delhi. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) first all-Asian production, an adaptation of the famous play, was staged in London’s West End at the Shakespeare World festival.

Directed by Iqbal Khan (the first British Asian to direct a play in West End), the play is set in contemporary Delhi as against the original setting — Sicily. Shakespeare’s plays, written to depict the Elizabethan England, (unfortunately) seem to come alive in today’s “third world” countries remarkably well. Khan reveals modern-day Delhi to be a perfect setting for Much Ado About Nothing. So much so that one only wishes that the transposition from Elizabethan England to Modern-day Delhi wouldn’t happen so smoothly. That the ancient and brutal codes about marriage and sexuality would sound anachronistic.

The histrionic style of the play and the majestic sets remind us again of well produced Bollywood dramas. In the words of the director, the Bollywood-esque elements of sentimentality and melodrama are too often associated with superficiality. But Khan is unafraid to be melodramatic; in fact he thinks “melodrama is heroic and enormous”.

Reminiscent of Bollywood tales of grand marriages, allegations on the chastity of the bride and the izzat of the family, this adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing starts as the army returns home, and the soldiers are trying to get accustomed to civilian life. Handsome soldier Claudio (Sagar Arya), falls in love (at first sight), with pretty and shy Hero (Amara Khan). A “merry war” continues between Beatrice (Meera Syal) and Benedick (Paul Bhattacharjee), sworn enemies of cupid, who eventually fall in love.

As the marriage day comes closer, the darker side of the characters takes centrestage. Don John, the villain of the play, manoeuvres with the help of Borachio to destroy Claudio’s marriage with Hero, by setting up a game to prove Hero’s disloyalty. Claudio shames Hero publicly and breaks the marriage. Hero’s father declares, “She is fallen, Into a pit of ink, that the wide sea, Hath drops too few to wash her clean again, And salt too little which may season give, To her foul-tainted flesh.” The marriage is saved only when Borachio confesses that Hero is innocent and a trick had been played.

But this play has nothing of the suffocating simple morality associated with such tales. Claudio’s mourning for Hero is supposed to sadden as much as his shaming of Hero horrifies. Similarly, when father Leonato calls Hero “mine”, it conveys both a patriarchal sense of possession and his love for his daughter, fully conveying the complex psychological web that a deeply patriarchal society puts individuals in. What’s more, the play draws its vitality from a wide array of characters.

Central role

The character of Beatrice, a strong, witty and assertive woman, well played by Meera Syal, is central to the play and reminds us that misogyny is countered on an everyday basis even in very traditional milieus. The director remarks, “The play resents a binary view of the world and presents the viewer with a multiplicity of choices and consequences.” It is through this complex interrogation of humanity, that the play gives reality its due. The transitions of the play from the real to the ritualistic and grand are well sustained, especially by the splendid stage design and spot-on music direction. Still, in terms of the relationships between characters themselves, the melodrama remains a bit pale.

As Shakespeare makes much ado about word play, the use of language is always a tricky issue in the adaptations of his plays. Here, the use of English doesn’t seem artificial. The director tells us, particular attention was given to “honouring the musical structure of English language”, and the rest, he argues, was done by the Indian savouring of the English language, which provides it with peculiar “muscularity and clarity”. The director hopes that the play would be brought to India. That would be an interesting experience for sure.

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