Directors are constantly trying to surprise us with innovative settings for Shakespeare: Hamlet in a bouncy castle, Othello in a pub, The Tempest in a barn and Macbeth in a prison, to name but a few. The message? Shakespeare’s themes might be timeless, but to stay relevant you have to be prepared to mix them up. Choosing an unexpected venue or an unusual setting for his writing can fall flat, but a change of scene can be brilliantly successful in illuminating a play. Iqbal Khan’s Much Ado About Nothing has done just that for audiences this summer, transporting its characters into the midst of high summer in India to create an RSC production with a distinctly Asian flavour.
The decision to set the action in India was about far more than just adding some exotic window dressing. Anjana Vasan, part of the ensemble cast, explains why it makes perfect sense for the play’s themes: “There are some strange things that happen in the text that don’t really work in a Western context that urgently any more, like the whole storyline of how Hero is shamed in marriage and the question of chastity. But in India those themes of honour and chastity are very much important and immediate. Those kinds of contradictions exist in India, the tensions between old and new.”
Changing the setting meant gaining a slightly different audience too. Aysha Kala, who plays Watch, has been delighted to see how many people from an Indian background are coming to the show. “They get things that other people wouldn’t get about the culture and language.” And of course, “It’s nice that people who aren’t Asian are loving it and loving the fact that they feel like they’re in India”, she says.
Performing in London meant a change of routine for the tight-knit company, who all live together when they are in Stratford. Vasan remarks: “I think it’s rare when you get a company that gets along so well.”
The actors’ strong relationships have also been fostered by the play’s director. The cast includes both established industry professionals – including the doyenne of British-Asian entertainment, Meera Syal – and people just starting out in their theatre careers. But it seems that Khan created an atmosphere of equality from the very beginning of the process. Vasan confirms this: “From day one I felt like I never had to be anyone but myself.” Most of the company was required at nearly all the rehearsals, even the ones that solely involved the lead characters: “We would input and our suggestions were taken on board.”
“He [Khan] works in a very organic way,” Vasan continues, “he creates a really good ensemble energy and I think that’s what really comes across in the play: that it’s a story where even the smallest characters have a lot to do and are active in the narrative.” The result is a play that’s been enormous fun for the cast, and hopefully for audiences as well, with – as Kala puts it – such “high energy throughout the whole thing, it is just like a constant party.”
Much Ado About Nothing was performed on tour and in London as part of the World Shakespeare Festival 2012. For more about the RSC and its current and forthcoming productions, visit www.rsc.org.uk.
Image credit: RSC