THEATRE / Something out of nothing: Paul Taylor applauds Mark Rylance and company in Much Ado About Nothing at the Queen's

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PYJAMA-CLAD and engaged in what looked to be a dazzlingly effective audition for the nearest madhouse, he was the most searching and spiritually luminous Hamlet I've ever seen. In total contrast, as the top-hatted chief of the card sharks in a recent production of Gogol's Gamblers, he gave a sublime display of craftily understated comic skill - the conman's ersatz American piety subversively intercut with drawled half-asides, the timing of which W C Fields himself could not have bettered.

Mark Rylance, then, is not just an actor of genius but a brilliantly various one, to boot. His reputation for both these qualities will only be enhanced by Matthew Warchus' joyous version of Much Ado About Nothing, which has just opened at the Queen's Theatre, where Rylance can be witnessed putting a wonderfully refreshing new accent on the part of Benedick.

The accent in question is a thick Ulster one - an inspired stroke for various reasons. First, it audibly emphasises Benedick's essential (and, in the end, valuable) separateness from the other more standard-issue and conventionally-minded males in the demobbed army (or in this case, navy) that lands on Messina. There's something about its music too that lays a touchingly comic stress on Benedick's pig-headedness in his round-the-clock pretence of being an anti-romantic confirmed bachelor.

And in the character's solo ruminations, which Rylance performs with the bouncing-off-the-audience flair of a first-rate stand-up comic, the accent creates the charming impression of a man who needs to hide his sensitivities behind the mask of a touchy curmudgeon. Benedick's famous rationalisation of his desire for Beatrice - 'the world must be peopled' - is usually delivered on a daft note of appealingly self-deceived rapture. In a hilarious variation, Rylance makes it a drily matter-of-fact, duty-calls, confidence to the audience. It's as though, offered a time-share in Arcadia, a man were to accept it only beacuse 'cows must be milked'.

The play's sparring duo here constitute a sort of Little and Large Show, for Rylance's gauche, hack-haired, bandy-legged bantam of a Benedick is a good head shorter than Janet McTeer's splendidly off-hand, Junoesque Beatrice, who signals in little flashes of private anxiety that she's not as comfortable with this rigid routine of witty bickering as her studied casualness might indicate. Instead of giving the usual showy fencing match, both actors play in a deliciously low-key manner. Even the broader farcical inventions have a lovely lightness of touch, as when, rather than be caught by his friends in romantic mode, this Benedick crams his copy of the song 'Sigh No More' into his mouth and passes off the resulting bulge as toothache. Also the moment when Benedick idiotically insists on reading love into Beatrice's every action, even though here she happens to be hacking and scoffing a banana at the time.

Above all, the actors make you see that the comic unconventionality of this pair is a function of the independence and intelligence that enable them to come to the defence of the slandered Hero (Rachel Joyce) when misogynist society abandons her. Excellent touches like the involuntary giggle that suddenly cascades here through Beatrice's sobs for her friend bring home the bittersweet awkwardness of the situation: that it has taken a near-tragedy to make her and Benedick drop their masks and admit to love.

These subtle characterisations are at the centre of a (roughly Thirties feel) production of bold concepts and striking design. It's alive to the darker elements of the play: between scenes there's the amplified sound of whispered tittle-tattle and at one point, to embellish the theme of eavesdropping, we are shown the soon-to-be-sundered lovers in spotlight, then a huge window drops down so that we see them, looking sadly vulnerable now, from the prying perspective of the villainous Don John. The overall mood though, is warm and upbeat. The blinded Cupid which runs as a motif through the beautiful sets has had its sight restored by the end; this commercial production, too, will be an eye-opener for anyone who believes that top quality Shakespeare is synonymous with the subsidised sector.

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(Photograph omitted)

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