It is probably wisest to chasten your expectations, just a little, before you head off to the Kennedy Center Opera House, where the Royal Shakespeare Company has unveiled its production of "Much Ado About Nothing."
Don't get me wrong. With this, the first of two plays it will be performing in repertory over the next three weeks (the other is Edmond Rostand's "Cyrano"), the RSC delivers an evening of wit, intelligence and beauty. But there's a built-in problem -- call it the anticipation factor -- that inevitably figures into these kinds of cultural exchanges.
The RSC, one of the world's leading theatrical companies, obviously hasn't journeyed 3,000 miles to show off a minor production of Shakespeare. If you're not careful, you can easily find yourself geared up beforehand for a Big Event and misspend much of your evening looking for landmarks that aren't there.
It is unlikely, for example, that Derek Jacobi and Sinead Cusack will go down in the books as the definitive Benedick and Beatrice. There is between them very little of the natural sexual magnetism that characterizes the great acting teams. He has a pudgy impishness about him, while her blond tresses and her skipping manner sometimes suggest Little Red Riding Hood grown up. You can imagine these two sharing a plum pudding far more more easily than a bed. Since, among other matters, "Much Ado" is about a pair of recalcitrant lovers fighting off an irresistible biological urge with all the quips and put-downs at their disposal, the casting comes up short in one fairly basic area.
That said, however, they undertake their battle of wits with considerable agility. Glibness is the usual trap into which lesser performers tumble, the assumption being that Beatrice and Benedick are superior creatures, rarely at a loss for the proper retort. Jacobi and Cusack will have nothing of it. They're certainly as bright a pair of would-be lovers as you could ask, but they also understand that in Messina they have a reputation to live up to and the pressure is on.
You can see them thinking every second, refining their strategy, honing the particular word that will give them a momentary edge and, not incidentally, please the crowd. Their approach to the Bard is refreshingly irreverent. Indeed, injecting pauses, double takes, gulps and gasps into the text -- often where you'd least expect them -- they are giving him a good shaking up. A cartoonist, illustrating their performances, would be sorely tempted to add "zap," "pow" and "kaboom" above the dialogue.
Like Peter Brook's celebrated "Midsummer Night's Dream," "Much Ado" unfolds in a box, although this set is far more subtle in its calculations. The sides and the floor are mirrored in black, while the back wall glows sometimes copper-orange, sometimes a chilly winter blue. Other than a few wooden chairs, the only realistic element is a series of trees, etched on clear lucite panels, that designer Ralph Koltai lowers into view, almost as if they were slides being dropped into a projector. It all makes for a shiny, high-gloss world, and a performer moving through it can't help but cast multiple reflections.
More than simple stylishness is at stake here, however. As director Terry Hands sees it, "Much Ado" is a play about appearances and illusions. No one is exactly what he appears; private selves invariably diverge from public selves. The preferred entertainment in this society is the masked ball, which merely adds to the complications.
Beatrice and Benedick are engaged in a merry war that belies their deepest feelings, and neither wants to be the first to drop the facade. When Benedick finally capitulates and confesses to her, "I do love nothing in the world so well as you," Jacobi breaks the line into three distinct parts and inhales deeply at each break, summoning courage with each inhalation. (He can't quite bring himself, you see, to spit out the declaration whole.)
Hero and Claudio may be much more direct in their love for each another. But the deceitful Don John will muddy those waters and so manipulate events that Hero appears on the eve of her wedding day a thoroughly wanton woman. It will take the biggest fool in Messina, the constable Dogberry, to expose the machinations and bring the truth to light. And even Dogberry, with his unerring gift for saying just the opposite of what he means, is engaging in unintentional subterfuges of his own.
Frankly, some of the supporting players flesh out this conceit better than others. As Don John, John Carlisle is masterfully effete, a thin-lipped, easy-going villain who hisses his s's more to amuse himself, one suspects, than to inspire forbidding in others. Christopher Benjamin's Dogberry is all pomp and stupidity, but he's so concerned with doing his job properly -- and so clearly in over his head -- that he's actually rather endearing. Edward Jewesbury manages to find some paternal compassion in Leonato, taking the curse off a character who is all too quick to embrace the accounts of his daughter Hero's loose virtue.
On the other hand, the spinsterish Clare Byam Shaw is hardly a Hero to weep for, and the actress does seem to be carrying that much-vaunted British articulation to extremes, firing off her consonants with such vigor that you may want to duck. As Claudio, her impetuous swain, Christopher Bowen is a sexless cipher. (There doesn't seem much biological necessity for these two to get together, either. Does no one mate in Britain these days?) And Geoffrey Freshwater's Borachio offers abundant evidence that ham is not merely a product of Virginia.
Hands knows how to create handsome pictures on the stage, which he then fractures boldly, before putting them back together again. And as his own lighting designer, he has a lovely sense of chiaroscuro. Thoughtful and tasteful as this production is, however, it never quite binds the excellence of its best parts into something greater. That's why I advise a little caution as you slip into your seat. The evening offers rewards any self-respecting theater company would be proud to call its own. But none of the revelations that would assure it a place in the annals.
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Terry Hands. Sets, Ralph Koltai; costumes, Alexander Reid; music, Nigel Hess; lighting, Terry Hands. With Derek Jacobi, Sinead Cusack, Edward Jewesbury, Clare Byam Shaw, John Carlisle, Ken Bones, Christopher Bowen, Christopher Benjamin, Geoffrey Freshwater. At the Opera House through Feb. 17.