THE ROYAL Shakespeare Company's "Much Ado About Nothing" is crisp, clear and comic, from the cheery chiming of hundreds of tiny bells that herald the play to the exuberance of the company curtain call.

Though this is by no means a daring or adventurous staging, director Terry Hands reminds us again of how contemporary Shakespeare's themes remain, while keeping the play within an orthodox structure. No revelations here, then, but beauty and pleasure abound. And, allowed ample room to create what seem to be highly personal readings, the RSC troupe frees and amplifies all the meanings imprisoned on the pages.

"Much Ado" is Shakespeare's usual knot of plots, this time concerning two confused love affairs further mangled by a nest of villains. The romance between Count Claudio and the falsely besmirched maiden Hero is strongly played by Christopher Bowen and Clare Byam Shaw. Don John, the wicked bastard brother who messes things up for the joy of evil, is eyebrow-arching, mustache-twirling perfect as played by John Carlisle, and Christopher Benjamin is very funny as the bumbling constable Dogberry, who inadvertently rights Don John's wrongs.

But the play rightfully belongs to those bellicose bookends Benedick and Beatrice, who value their self-protective wit above all else. As the sparring would-be lovers, the cuddly, slightly befuddled Derek Jacobi and nimble, sharp-witted Sinead Cusack put distinctly individual spins on the roles.

Trying in vain to ignore the fact that the entire world is marrying around them, B&B play an adult variation on the perennial juvenile sport -- teasing each other in place of affection, with sarcasm as shield and sword.

Are "quips and sentences and paper bullets of the brain" enough for a man? asks Benedick. "No," he decides with mock altruism, "the world must be peopled." So, despite his often lyrical better judgment, Benedick's wit is inevitably clouded by love (abetted by scheming friends). Jacobi's halting, hesitant surrender to emotion is hilarious. All ends well, of course, but the final scene indicates that a lifetime of sublime arguments await this couple.

Also noteworthy among an entirely fine cast is Robert Craig, who, as Balthasar, illuminates Shakespeare's songs from within with his heartrending tenor.

Above all, this "Much Ado" is beautiful to behold, and Ralph Koltai and Terry Hands, who, respectively, designed the quietly beautiful settings and artful lighting, deserve equal billing with the actors. Mirrored in the depths of the black reflective stage, actors wander among trees rendered like Chinese paintings, through pools of moonlight and dappled shade.

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING -- At the Kennedy Center Opera House through February 14.