Much Ado About Nothing, Swan Theatre, Julius Caesar, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon

A spinster who truly sizzles
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The Independent Culture

Marianne Elliott's exuberant new production of Much Ado About Nothing at the Swan is set in pre-Castro 1950s Cuba - you half expect Sky Masterson and Sarah Brown, on their whirlwind trip to Havana, to wander in from Guys and Dolls. There would certainly be no shortage of sinners for Sarah to save.

The shift of location works well. The reflex sexism of this Catholic society suits the sobering aspects of a play in which an innocent girl is slandered at the altar by credulous, barrack-room misogynists. Just as importantly, there's a raffish party atmosphere about the place that makes it a dangerously heady spot for a bunch of off-duty soldiers.

There hasn't, in truth, been much of a festival spirit so far in the Stratford Complete Works season. The masked ball scene and the finale here - with the cast letting their hair down in a witty formation display of tangos, rumbas and congas - bring a welcome, infectious sense of whooping carnival to this 37-play slog.

Tamsin Greig will not disappoint her ardent Green Wing fans with her deliciously funny performance as the career spinster, Beatrice. Looking terrific in an array of pencil skirts, Greig combines natural stage presence with the ability to make tiny facial effects you might think would work only in close-up, but are wonderfully comic. Indeed, she delivers the heroine's defensively wounding witticisms more like a bitchy movie broad than in the usual, consciously "theatrical", singing-for-her-supper manner.

There are some great moments of knockabout. In the eavesdropping scene, Greig brings the house down when, charged with being "self-endeared", she slips and accidentally sets off a deafening Vespa hooter. But Greig also communicates Beatrice's depth and seriousness in skilfully understated ways. Rather than give the injunction "Kill Claudio" the standard ring of sudden melodrama, she lets it drop like a quiet bombshell in the midst of her first distracted kisses with Joseph Millson's handsome Benedick, a superbly winning mix of absurdity, charm and sensitivity.

The production does not go down the fashionable route of interpreting Don Pedro (played here by Patrick Robinson) as a closet homosexual whose actions are explained by an infatuation for Claudio. It does, however, give us an endearingly camp Dogberry from Bette Bourne, w`hose partnership with Verges seems to be more than just professional.

Like the loud-hailer through which Beatrice orders Benedick into supper, some of the comedy is over-signalled, but the unlovely chauvinist military culture is mordantly evoked in the chuckling callousness of Hero's slanderers to her ostensibly bereaved father.

By comparison, Sean Holmes's starkly staged Julius Caesar in the main house comes across as merely competent. John Light's Brutus is bland and fails to suggest the narcissisitic self-regard of this noblest Roman of the all, while Finbar Lynch's Cassius, though equipped with the right lean-and-hungry look, offers a pretty off-the-peg reading of the character. The gap between Caesar's public image and his human fallibility is registered with a nice, faintly comic touch by James Hayes. A respectable evening, with few fresh insights. It seems the one thing we can rely on in the Complete Works festival is a consistent unevenness.

'Much Ado' to 12 October; 'Julius Caesar' to 10 October (0870 609 1110)

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