A production of Much Ado About Nothing is not the first place you would expect to find a Yoruba war-chant, but the Romanian director Alexandru Darie's account of the play for the Oxford Stage Company is nothing if not multicultural. For reasons that find pretty limited support in Shakespeare's text, Darie has become persuaded of the notion 'that this play is about people in a collapsed Babel tower' and that the courtship- comedy of mistakings and misprisions unfolds not in the secure aftermath of war, but in a brief gap between hostilities.
It's true that Messina, the town to which the demobbed, victorious soldiers return at the start of the play, is stirred out of its set ways by the presence of these alluring strangers and that the principal males hail from such diverse places as Aragon, Padua and Florence. But it's a big step from this to the bewildering ethnic and cultural hodge-podge of Darie's production where if, to the strains of a sitar, an eskimo had suddenly wandered on shaking a shillelagh, it would not have seemed unduly eccentric. Pluralists to a fault, the characters here have a bizarrely eclectic approach to rituals. At the abortive wedding of Claudio and Hero, for example, the clothes and customs have a Japanese feel, though it seems to be witch-doctor practices that revive and exorcise the fainted, slandered bride.
All this creates some vivid stage pictures (the show is beautifully lit by Raymond Cross); what it doesn't create is a credible society. The fact that the verbal wit of the skirmishes between Beatrice and Benedick bespeaks a courtly, cultivated milieu has not deterred designer Maria Miu from giving the setting a nomadic, tribal aspect. The primitive timber frame suggests a people prepared to shift, at short notice, away from danger.
Not a paranoid precaution, as it turns out, for Darie has twisted the ending so that instead of being taken in flight, the villainous Don John is reported as having turned in flight, bringing a band of armed attackers back to Messina. Distraught at this interruption to the nuptial festivities, James Simmons's Benedick snatches the swords out of his friends' hands and pleads with them to put off thoughts of battle until the next day. It is, however, a tight, tensed- up knot of people on whom the lights fade.
Apart from being dismally unfunny (the eavesdropping scenes are the least inspired I have ever witnessed; Verges has been given the elbow), the production is, for the most part, poorly spoken and often grievously insensitive to the play's emotional subtleties. Both Simmons and Marie Francis's vociferously Irish Beatrice looked too young and invulnerable to be worried about being left on the shelf and give, in their broad, generalised performances, no hint (before the revelations) that the couple's bantering pose of quarrelsome, confirmed celibacy has come to feel like a prison which they need help to escape from.
At last year's LIFT Festival, Mr Darie's Midsummer Night's Dream (played with a Romanian cast) heightened, to sometimes thrilling effect, the spooky surveillance world of this comedy. It was a jolting new vision of the play shaped by the specific experience of living in a society monitored by the Securitate. By contrast, to get across his universal make-love- not-war message here, the director has to offer a portentous distortion of Much Ado.
Continues at Oxford Playhouse (0865 798600)
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