Much Ado About Nothing, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

The non-conformists
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The Independent Culture

As it undergoes its own very public midlife crisis, the Royal Shakespeare Company also happens to be presenting a season of paired plays about tricky middle-aged love. This kicked off a fortnight ago with a patchy, unduly cut Antony and Cleopatra. It continues now with Gregory Doran's exhilaratingly funny and shrewd account of Much Ado About Nothing – a production which, viewed as an application for the top job here, will do him no harm whatsoever.

The Kenneth Branagh movie version played up the Italianate setting, making you feel you were watching an extended advert for Tuscany and shampoo. The play is located in Messina, and Doran's production more pointedly places the proceedings in Fascist Sicily in the 1930s. The demobbed black-shirted soldiers who troop on to Stephen Brimson Lewis's warmly lit, terracotta courtyard are evidently just returned from Mussolini's conquest of Abyssinia.

This milieu, with its macho omertà values, gives a powerfully reinvigorated edge to the Claudio-Hero subplot and its unlovely exposure of brutal male jealousy and double standards. A statue of the Virgin Mary is borne in at the head of the wedding procession, suggesting that this impossible combination of the maternal and the intacta is the Sicilian male ideal. The production imparts a frightening violence to the scene, with Gary Waldhorn's Leonato having to be restrained from attacking his poor wronged daughter in a selfish paroxysm of patriarchal face-saving. At such injustice, Harriet Walter's magnificent Beatrice is driven, when alone, to a maddened ecstasy of fury and frustration, taking out her desire for vengeance on one of the pews, which she kicks over. There's a lovely touch later on when Doran adds to the many significant instances of eavesdropping in the play by having Kirsten Parker's incarcerated Hero look down and see her now-remorseful father on the steps outside, cradling her bridal veil.

The fact that the central couple are misfits whose comic non-conformity is revealed as valuable independent-mindedness in a crisis is beautifully conveyed by Nicholas le Prevost and Miss Walter. His Benedick is a crustily confirmed military bachelor with a streak of bemused vulnerability and a surprised-looking forelock of grizzled hair. Over-careful and seemingly set in his ways (note the way, at the first sound of buzzing, his hand fussily covers his glass of wine), he's hilarious when reduced to scurrying around on his hands and knees in the overhearing-scene and to giving the little boy waiter, who arrives with his bill and coolly assesses the embarrassment he could cause, a huge tip to keep him quiet.

Dazzlingly attractive in her Thirties outfits, Harriet Walter has the thoroughbred wit and presence of a Katharine Hepburn. You can see how she might appeal, as a prospective wife, to a gay man – which is how Don Pedro has been reconceived in Clive Wood's fine performance. In Doran's version, this soldier features as a campy closet-case, who ironically finds himself wooing on behalf of Claudio, the comrade he loves: John Hopkins's incorrigible, jeering pin-up of a Claudio.

There are one or two moments that are pushed too far. To have the eavesdropping Beatrice soused with a garden hose gives too physical a reason for the cold she's suffering from on her next appearance. This is more subtly and realistically attributable to the kind of emotional shock that shuts down your immune system. On the whole, though, Doran's is a production that will delight and enlighten West End audiences when it transfers to the Theatre Royal, Haymarket later in the summer.

To 13 July (01789 403 403)

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