Much Ado About Nothing gets modern-day makeover

Roy Williams, 'balladeer of black urban youth', has reworked the Bard's great comedy, setting it against a backdrop of binge-drinking and the Iraq war
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The Independent Culture

Friday night in a small market town in the South-east of England and the twentysomething binge-drinkers are out in force, on the pull in Yates' wine lodge, brawling in the club queue, hurling insults at the police and later, inevitably, throwing up behind the kebab van. It's a scene that is played out weekend after weekend across Britain and on the pages of some newspapers but rarely, if ever, has it graced the boards of the RSC.

Until now, that is. As the Complete Works season builds to its climax with Ian McKellen's Lear in March, next week sees the opening of one of its most intriguing offerings. Performed by the triumphant Pericles/The Winter's Tale cast, Days of Significance is a "response" to Much Ado About Nothing set among England's disaffected youth against the backdrop of the Iraq war, and written by Britain's foremost chronicler of multicultural yoof culture, Roy Williams. He is one of three playwrights commissioned to write new works to be performed alongside Shakespeare's collected plays. In November, Leo Butler's One of These Days, a response to The Tempest set in occupied Ireland in 1775, was given a rehearsed reading and Rona Munro's The Indian Boy, a mysterious woodland play inspired by A Midsummer Night's Dream, had a five-night run.

It's not hard to see why the 38-year-old Williams, described by critics as the "pretender to David Hare's crown" and "the dramatic balladeer of black urban youth", was deemed worthy of the honour. Born in Notting Hill, Williams began his theatrical career as a bit-part actor before enrolling at Rose Bruford College, Kent. While there he wrote The No Boys Cricket Club, based on his mother's move from Jamaica to Britain in the 1950s, which later became his first professional play (at Theatre Royal, Stratford East) and won the Writers' Guild New Writer of the Year award in 1996. Since then he has gained a steady stream of awards for plays that run the gamut of social themes from inter-racial relationships (Lift Off in 1999 and Clubland, for which Williams was awarded the 2001 Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright) to racism and football hooliganism in Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads in 2002 and the Damilola Taylor killing in 2003's Fallout, lauded as "the most important play to emerge from [the Royal Court] since Blasted and Shopping and Fucking".

The war in Iraq is a natural thematic progression then for a playwright who has never shied away from the burning issues of the day. Last year Williams stated that he was "ready to move on, to find stories beyond the world of black urban youth".

Rewriting the Bard might seem a bold move but happily Days of Significance still bears the hallmarks of a Williams play, trading iambic pentameter for the hypnotic, occasionally violent rhythms of street patois that have made his name. It is everything that the RSC's latest Much Ado, set in the sexy, sassy, swellegant Cuba of the 1950s is not. "If you know the play well enough, you'll see traces of it in my piece," explains Williams. "The RSC said, 'use the play as an inspiration, let it go where you want it to go'. It pretty much feels like a totally new play."

The opening scenes of Much Ado provide the inspiration for the play's structure. Where Shakespeare has his men returning victorious from war to revel and fall in love, Williams has his heroes - Ben and Jamie - drinking away their last night at home before going to fight in Iraq. In the first act, we witness a very modern battle of the sexes, where Jamie (Claudio) falls in love with Hannah (Hero) outside the pub ("They were playing Kylie, you were wearing the same white strapless top. Couldn't take my eyes off.") while Ben (Benedick) and Trish (Beatrice) indulge in some serious cussing (Ben: "If only my motor could go as fast as yer mouth." Trish: "Face, bovvered?"). Throughout, their drunken behaviour is watched over by the benevolent figure of Lenny (Leonato), the kebab-van owner and boyfriend of Hannah's mum.

Act II moves the action to Basra, where death lurks around every corner for the young soldiers, who have little idea what they are fighting for, while the final act muses on those left behind, in particular Hannah. "She's the carrier of what I'm saying because she makes a journey throughout the piece. She has to decide, 'Do I believe in war or not?'" It's a subject close to Williams's heart, who almost joined the army aged 18 "but saw the light at the last minute".

"I wanted to write a piece that didn't just deal with the people in power. I wanted to see how it affects people at the other end of the spectrum," he says. "I just wasn't interested in covering old ground, the reasons why we went to war, who lied, who didn't lie, where's the proof? I think that's been done to death. It's about these young people finding their voices, saying where's my moral compass? These are the kind of young people who we, in polite society, find very easy to dismiss, and in a way, it's easy for them to dismiss themselves."

In relocating the war debate from the political to the personal sphere, Williams makes a terrifying case for the way in which the amorality, or at least ill-formed individual beliefs of the young, can have catastrophic consequences for society. As part of the Monsterist group of playwrights, whose number include David Eldridge, Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Ryan Craig, Williams is passionate about new writing of large-scale works that tackle the grand themes head on. "When I got the commission it was an opportunity for me to write a big play. This play is exactly what we, the Monsterists, have been fighting for."

Meanwhile, he is also working on an adaptation of Absolute Beginners, for the Lyric, Hammersmith. Colin MacInnes's 1959 novel about the birth of teenagers, gang culture and sexual liberalism during the 1958 Notting Hill riots will be given a makeover by a mouth-watering team of collaborators including Mercury Music Prize-winning jazz-hip hop artist Soweto Kinch and Liam Steel of DV8. And Williams has been working with Damon Albarn on a musical for the National set in Notting Hill.

"It's very different. To use a football analogy, I was playing out of position", says Williams. "I felt a bit out of sorts to begin with, but once I got to know him, it was enjoyable and I found I was learning something. I always look to be learning." These are significant days indeed for one of British theatre's brightest hopes.

Until 20 January, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon (0870 609 1110)