The first and last word on this RSC production has to be on its dazzling design. Set in a high-concept Messina inspired by Afrofuturism and sci-fi, it comes with a wardrobe and stage set that will have any audience member’s eyes on stalks.
There are gold fountains, silver frocks and stupendous white afros. Each costume and set change outdoes the one before it. It is what you might expect if Baz Luhrmann adapted Much Ado About Nothing into a lavish theatrical romcom.
A space-age backdrop gives the impression that we are aboard the Starship Enterprise, the cast like inhabitants of a newly discovered faraway planet. There are twists of Black Panther too along with The Lion King and Nasa-inspired 1970s designs of Pierre Cardin.
The director is Roy Alexander Weise but this is not so much his production as that of the costume designer, Melissa Simon-Hartman, and the set designer, Jemima Robinson. On looks alone this would get the full five stars, but the show as a whole skitters too much on its shimmering surfaces.
The central gender switch works well: Don Pedro is now Pedra (Ann Ogbomo), a princess who woos Hero (Taya Ming) on behalf of Claudio (Mohammed Mansaray) and then flirts with Beatrice (Akiya Henry). The suggestion is that in this universe there are no gendered preferences in romance and marriage.
But the pace and performances seem out of kilter; it begins on a high-octane note with Pedra, Claudio and Benedick swooping from the ceiling on ropes wearing coloured capes and looking like futuristic superheroes – high energy with a great dollop of kitsch. A shimmering set-piece is built around the masquerade ball. “Good evening, Messina. Are you having a good time tonight?” croons a singer clad head to foot in gold. The music, composed by Mobo award-nominated Femi Temowo, takes us from Afrobeat to soul and reggae. It is all super-cool but begins to take on the look and feel of a pop video or an advert for high-end vodka.
Several performances lack depth and subtlety, with lines declaimed rather than felt. At over three hours, it begins to plod. There is not enough shock and psychic violence in Claudio’s public shaming of Hero when he wrongly accuses her of pre-marital sex, and Hero’s surprise reappearance at the end, having been proclaimed dead, does not bring the emotional uplift that it should.
A Christmas panto energy begins to creep into the second half, too, with cartoonish overacting between a gender-reversed Dogberry (Karen Henthorn) and her motley crew.
Michael Balogun withdrew from the role of Benedick last week and his understudy, Luke Wilson, is one of the strongest forces in this cast (Balogun’s own breakthrough performance came in Death of England: Delroy as an understudy after Giles Terera pulled out). Wilson brings mischief and likability to his part, opposite Henry’s flamboyant and minxish Beatrice. They are good sparring partners in their witty skirmishes but lack romantic energy.
So do Hero and Claudio, which keeps us at arm’s length from the emotional drama of this play and all its near-tragic moments. What stays in the mind is the breathtaking aesthetics. Simon-Hartman and Robinson deserve an Olivier, and every other accolade going.