Much Ado About Nothing, NT Olivier, London<br />Marianne Dreams, Almeida, London <br />Noughts & Crosses, Civic Hall, Stratford-Upon-Avon

The word play between Shakespeare's most reluctant lovers sizzles, but there is pain beneath the surface
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The Independent Culture

Simon Russell Beale is rocketing through the air with a dreamy smile on his lips. In Nicholas Hytner's delightful staging of Much Ado About Nothing, SRB's rotund Benedick has been scurrying round a sun-drenched atrium, trying to hide behind ludicrously thin pillars. Eavesdropping on his pals, the sworn bachelor has just overheard that Zoë Wanamaker's mocking Beatrice is, in fact, astonishingly smitten with him. (Skip the next couple of paragraphs if you're going to this show and want a surprise.)

Suddenly, Russell Beale leaps off the flagstones by the ornamental pool and hurls himself in with a huge sploosh. It's a breathtaking, brilliant moment. He has taken the plunge in farcical panic, because his pals have spun round. Simultaneously, this is a fantastic image of falling head over heels in love. Just for a second you see him flying, as if he is Cupid and his arrow and his ecstatic human target all rolled into one.

The immersion is an extraordinary sort of baptism as well, washing away his cynicism. Bobbing up to the surface, he looks like an outsize baby in a font or a frog prince bouncing with joy.

This is a Much Ado with emotional depths. Hytner brings out how Shakespeare's romcom has not only near-tragic plot twists but also wounded jokers as its protagonists. Russell Beale and Wanamaker are clearly both self-appointed comedians, publicly concealing their yearning hearts behind quips and privately nursing hurt feelings as mutual old flames.

Hytner has their past love come as a revelation even to Beatrice's nearest and dearest. Her uncle Leonato (Oliver Ford Davies) and her cousin Hero (Susannah Fielding) look startled as Wanamaker lets the secret slip after a boozy masked ball. Her tipsy state also makes terrific sense of her friskiness with their VIP guest, the prince Don Pedro (Julian Wadham). When she suggests marriage to him, she gives the royal posterior a merrily improper tweak. His frosty response, standing on his dignity, is hilarious but also chilling: a tiny intimation that things might turn nasty.

Meanwhile, his bastard brother, Don John, gains riveting psychological complexity, played by Andrew Woodall. Slumped with a wine bottle, plotting mischief, he is an alcoholic depressive and bitter underdog almost on a par with the illegitimate Edmund in King Lear. When Leonato's family honour is besmirched, Ford Davies himself flips into an astounding Lear-like fury, cursing his daughter before regaining his lovably gentle composure.

Perhaps this production gets off to a slow start, and Daniel Hawksford, as Hero's soldier-suitor Claudio, seems a charmless aggressive dolt, though this could be a bold take on his character if it were just in sharper focus. Regarding the normally lumbering fiascos with the night watch, Trevor Peacock proves a saving grace. He makes Constable Dogberry's sidekick, Verges, a sweet, genuine simpleton who repeats his boss's malapropisms like a contentedly burbling toddler.

As for the set design, you might think Shakespeare had a revolving stage in mind. As Vicky Mortimer's pergola-like atrium spins, you effortlessly get to follow the eavesdroppers around the garden, not to mention weaving from couple to couple at the ball and the final wedding dance. Lovely.

I wasn't so won over by the balletic twirls that come into play when the heroine nods off in Marianne Dreams. Adapted from the excellent children's novel, this tells the story of a 10-year-old who bedbound by illness draws a picture of an isolated house in a bleak landscape. When she sleeps she finds herself in the world she has drawn and a sickly boy called Mark is also trapped in the house, until they determine to escape.

Directed and choreographed by Will Tuckett, this staging can look like an awkward halfway house between theatre and ballet. It didn't get off to a great start on press night with the actress-dancer Selina Chilton skidding on the sloping floor in one of her opening pirouettes and crash-landing. However, in the main, her Marianne leaps about nimbly with swirling arms, repeatedly racing in her imagination to visit Mark Arends' skinny, crippled Mark.

A big girl in bunches, Chilton has winning comic eagerness. Moira Buffini's script is, in turn, a sensitive but springy response to the original, with particularly entertaining cheeky lines when Marianne is petulant. A poignantly unspoken and never-to-be-realised romance is also being played out, very subtly, between the doctor and Marianne's quietly lonesome mother (Sarah Malin).

Though Lorna Heavey's video projections are excessively fussy with graphics and unnecessary live footage, thrilling menace imbues the chase scene. Additionally, that febrile dream is entangled, in real time, with the doctor and Malin harrowingly trying to pull her little girl back from the brink of death. This is the Almeida's first family Christmas show, and one hopes they will go on to carve out an engaging niche in experimental dance-theatre over the coming years.

Meanwhile, the RSC following the NT's lead in serious children's theatre is boldly presenting a drama for youngsters that's more tragic and politically thought-provoking than mere festive fun.

Adapted by Dominic Cooke from Malorie Blackman's novel, Noughts & Crosses is a kind of modern rewrite of Romeo and Juliet. Callum and Sephy are adolescent sweethearts torn apart by racial hatred. He is white and she is black and the society they live in is rife with various forms of supremacism, from one gang's childishly sneering comments about the others smelling funny to full-scale educational apartheid.

Cooke is a better director than he is a scriptwriter. His staging is impressively fluid, with the drama's quarrelling families spinning away in the scene changes, with chairs and tables lifted high over their heads as if we're watching slow-mo explosions. The snag is the dialogue is often stiff and the plot progresses in puzzling, sometimes infeasible jerks.

That said, the great twist is that it's the blacks who wield all the power here, while the whites are the underdogs who are getting embroiled in terrorism. Watching this played out is a sociological lesson in itself. Callum and Sephy are more complex than Romeo and Juliet, struggling with their own ingrained prejudices, and their fate is ultimately heartrending.

'Much Ado About Nothing' (020-7452 3000) to 29 March; 'Marianne Dreams' (020-7359 4404) to 19 January; 'Noughts & Crosses' (0844-800 1110) to 2 February, then touring

Further reading 'Checkmate', the third book in the Noughts and Crosses trilogy by Malorie Blackman

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