Arts: Theatre: The Bard would have loved it

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING PLAYHOUSE THEATRE LONDON

LET ME be quite clear: Cheek by Jowl's Much Ado About Nothing is wonderful. Not only is it constantly surprising and extraordinarily moving, it is full of wonder.

Most productions manage some of the multiple plots at the expense of others. If you take Beatrice and Benedick to be the central relationship then the play tends to collapse when trying to tie together all the other plots around it. But by widening the focus to all the men's behaviour towards women in times of war, Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod reveal the play to be as tightly laced as Hero's wedding corset.

Even Kenneth Branagh's Shakespeare-as-Heal's-catalogue film recognised that the action opens with the men returning from war, but after a flurry of hair-washing the women's reaction seemed restricted to an appreciation of well-filled uniforms. Here, they act in relation to men whose behaviour is utterly dictated by military codes. Instead of the predictable cute- meet, Beatrice and Benedick's protracted pairing-off is the result of male public-school fear and disdain of women. When Benedick is fooled into loving Beatrice, Matthew Macfadyen's literal fall from upright behaviour is gloriously funny.

Military men spend years in their own company, which brings suggestions of homosexuality. This not only explains Don Pedro's usually mysterious sadness, it also beefs up the awkwardness surrounding Claudio's lack of interest in his own marriage. Donnellan uses Don Pedro's announcement of Claudio's betrothal to illuminate this. Upon hearing the news, Claudio, who has walked huffily off into the auditorium, leaps back on stage to hug not his wealthy bride-to-be, but his best friend.

Donnellan uses his hallmark style of continuous action to mirror the plots and charge up the conflict between the private and public business of love with scenes acted in front of the entire company. Much of the first half is staged as a ball at which Saskia Reeves's mercurial Beatrice becomes deliciously drunk. Meanwhile, the cast pair off and regroup around her, smartly underlining the plot's crucial overheard intimacies.

This is one of those rare occasions that make you understand why people still present Shakespeare. It has nothing to do with making you "appreciate" his cultural greatness, you simply feel it as you drink in the play's living, breathing passion. The play marks the end, for the foreseeable future, of Cheek by Jowl. All the more reason to book for this resplendent, glowing swansong.

DAVID BENEDICT

To 27 July (0171-839 4401)

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