Joy unconfined came to Broadway yesterday with the Royal Shakespeare Company's entrancing "Much Ado About Nothing." It will be followed on Tuesday by the company's "Cyrano de Bergerac," no doubt equally enchanting, the two productions to continue in repertory through Dec. 12. Break down the doors.
Derek Jacobi, who will also be seen as Cyrano, is the kingpin of "Much Ado." His Benedick, rich in detail and bursting with life, is the finest in my experience. The actor, heretofore familiar to most Americans as the retiring title figure in the PBS "I, Claudius" series and to a few as the haunted lead in a Broadway disaster I've willingly forgotten, is a revelation as the dedicated bachelor who is inevitably joined to the equally dedicated spinster Beatrice, prettily and spiritedly played by Sinead Cusack. They make a delightful team, but it is Jacobi, an actor suddenly seeming to realize his full potential and reveling in it, who establishes the tone for this glorious entertainment.
And it is glorious in depth, though here and there one might quibble with a reading (an occasional line does get lost in this vast auditorium). For one thing, it is always exquisite to look at as the director, Terry Hands, deploys his large cast, beautifully and traditionally costumed by Alexander Reid, as if by magic about the handsome, simple, mirrored and raked stage which, in Ralph Koltai's design, undergoes subtle alterations throughout. The director, Hands, is also responsible for the exquisite lighting.
The production, which dances now and then to bits of lovely incidental music by Nigel Hess, and breaks out in song to his music, too, is all of a piece. The bothersome Claudio-Hero romance is gotten through as gracefully as possible by Christopher Bowen as the rash Claudio and by Clare Byam Shaw as the forlorn Hero rejected, and presumably stricken dead, on her wedding day. At the very least, they make an attractive couple. John Carlisle is eminently hissable as the conniving Don John, bastard brother to Don Pedro, pleasingly set forth by Ken Bones. And Christopher Benjamin gets his laughs in the right places as that pompous ass of a constable, Dogberry, though nothing will dim my memory of John Woodvine's wholly original and hilarious Dogberry in the RSC's 1976 London mounting of the play.
One could go on recounting the sparkling moments leading up to that final swirling waltz of white figures until all disappear but two, Beatrice and Benedick locked in an embrace as the spotlight, growing smaller and smaller, slowly dims out on the two heads, the sole black-garbed figure, that of the reflective Don Pedro has slipped quietly off. But go see for yourself. Rejoice in Jacobi and these brilliant visitors who bring much-needed heart and soul to Broadway.
Back in town with a new look is the most famous theater company in the English-speaking world.
This Broadway season Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company is showing a fresh face to its activities; indeed appearing in New York for the first time in its true colors, and those colors are those of a repertory company.
At home, both at Stratford-upon-Avon and in London, the RSC gives a variety of plays during the same week. Sometimes - as it did at the Gershwin Theater here yesterday - two plays on the same day. At the Gershwin it was the official opening performance of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing in the afternoon, and the final preview performance of Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac in the evening.
And this was not intended as a display of virtuosity. Simply policy! Even thought the two stars, Sinead Cusack and Derek Jacobi, are the same in both plays.
Cyrano, edged out of this review by a nose, must wait for later consideration.
Unfortunately, and unhappily, the staging of Much Ado, by the company's joint artistic director Terry Hands, does not show the RSC at its best. This is by no means the equal of that masterly All's Well That Ends Well on Broadway a couple of seasons back, or, for that matter, of the marathon production of Nicholas Nickleby that seemed to set the seal on the company's reputation in New York.
Much Ado is not an easy play to stage. For one thing, the nominal plot - the love of the fickle Claudio for Hero, and his duping into believing her unchaste - is inevitably wiped off center-stage by Shakespeare's adroitly interwoven subplot of the wooing of Beatrice, the modern woman, and Benedick, the would-be confirmed bachelor.
For all this, the actual measure of romance, comedy, and clowning - the latter left to the idiocies of the constable, Dogberry, and his assistant, Verges - is possibly more exquisitely balanced than any in Shakespeare. It is partly this balance that the RSC here misses.
The Claudio of Christopher Bowen proves a mindless fop, inconstant rather than bewildered, the Hero of Clare Byam Shaw a touch too uninteresting for passion, and those odd brothers, the interfering Don Pedro and the malevolently malcontent Don John, are here given but shallow gravity.
Which really leaves us - apart from some beautifully timed verbal gymnastics from Christopher Benjamin's stolidly stubborn Dogberry and Jimmy Gardner's blithely senile Verges - with Beatrice and Benedick, a circumstance not necessarily disastrous.
And indeed in Miss Cusack we have a witty, mettlesome Beatrice, who complies with the great actress Ellen Terry's advice that the lines "should be spoken with the lightest raillery, with mirth in voice and a charm in manner."
Regrettably Mr. Jacobi - admirable actor that we know him to be - is no match as Benedick. Indeed he is no Benedick. Flippant, petulant, and even epicene, this is by no means Shakespeare's warrior poet. When Beatrice commands this Benedick to: "Kill Claudio!" one wonders whether he is capable of slaughtering anything more deadly than a wasp.
Director Hands is obviously concerned with expressing the romance of the piece, but never gives the play a firm character. A few years ago this same RSC offered a wondrous Much Ado with Donald Sinden and Judy Dench, set in India during the days of Kipling, a kind of time-traveling I usually deplore but which for once worked like a charm. Of course, there was Mr. Sinden.
The modish lucite-and-mirrors setting now devised by the veteran designer Ralph Koltai and Alexander Reid's Van Dyck costuming are presumably meant to evoke fairyland rather than the department-store window display actually suggested. But this is all one for a production that reflects a heartlessness in which, to borrow from another comedy, Miss Cusack stands out "like a good deed in a naughty world."
When Derek Jacobi's Benedick and Sinead Cusack's Beatrice launch their witty fusillade in the Royal Shakespeare Company's ''Much Ado About Nothing,'' the war of words is as merry as it's claimed to be - more a chummy vaudeville turn than a battle royal. The actors don't square off to exchange their opening volley of insults; they sidle up to one another as if they were wary rival comedians trying out their best new zingers in a game of ''Can you top this?''
The impish Mr. Jacobi, impersonating the most sardonic of confirmed bachelors, and the headstrong Miss Cusack, a beautiful but almost earthy Lady Disdain, may not be the most patrician or sexually volatile Benedick and Beatrice of any theatergoer's experience: In contemporary terms, they're closer in spirit to 1930's screwball comedy than Noel Coward. But their perfectly meshed teamwork surely lifts them into the aristocracy of comic acting. We can see right away that this Benedick and Beatrice share an intellectual affinity - and we immediately start rooting for their hearts to catch up with their heads. When the embrace at long last comes, Mr. Jacobi and Miss Cusack get the last laugh by breaking the clinch for one last bout of mimed debate. The delight this couple finds in contentiousness ripples right through the house.
Given the house - the Gershwin - that's no small achievement. The RSC's ''Much Ado'' - which will be officially joined on Tuesday by its repertory companion, ''Cyrano de Bergerac'' - does not belong in Broadway's largest theater. As directed by Terry Hands, the company's joint artistic director, this production is an iridescent reverie, as delicate as the wind chimes that shimmer in Nigel Hess's exceptionally beautiful score. The Gershwin is a cavern unfit for any show smaller than ''Sweeney Todd.'' All things considered, it's amazing how much the winning stars and their talented companions warm the place up. This ''Much Ado'' is more broadly played and remote in New York than it was at the RSC's London home, but, some excesses and sags aside, it still makes a jolly, at times enchanting, evening out of a comedy whose brilliance is unmistakably acrid.
Stylish as his staging is, Mr. Hands doesn't shortchange the play's sour side: It's visible from the start. Ralph Koltai's striking set is a maze of reflecting surfaces - floating, glassy panels and a mirrored floor. Along with Alexander Reid's foppish Carolean costumes, the scenic design summons up the narcisstic society of Messina. In ''Much Ado,'' appearances are everything - and are almost always deceiving.
Though there's nothing artificial about the comedy, its subject is artificiality, with a vengeance: The self-absorbed characters speak lies almost from beginning to end. Benedick and Beatrice lie about their true feelings for one another - until they're tricked into honesty by the deceptions concocted by their dearest friends. The slander perpetrated by the malevolent Don John temporarily derails the wedding of the young lovers Claudio and Hero - and it takes still another cruel lie, Hero's faked death, to right the wrong. Nearly every character has a double image in the text - one public, one private - and they are reinforced by the prismatic images of the actors that frequently ricochet about Mr. Koltai's luminous screens.
Better still are those moments when we watch Mr. Jacobi and Miss Cusack juggle those images in performance - as they abandon their brittle public poses to confront the unruly emotions that their extravagant wit has always masked. ''This can be no trick!,'' Benedick declares right after he's been tricked into lovesickness by his cronies. It's hilarious to watch Mr. Jacobi, who has piously mocked Claudio's romantic ardor 10 minutes earlier, rack his brain to find any convenient excuse for his sudden change of heart. By the time he grabs at his final rationalization - ''The world must be peopled'' - he has about-faced so many times he's spinning. When he emerges later in full romantic plumage - a red cape matched by the rose he daintily carries in his hand - the deadpan understatement ''I am not as I have been'' becomes a tumultuous punchline.
Miss Cusack's transformation is of a more somber sort, as befits a character who has ''a little of the melancholy element in her.'' When she, too, is tricked into facing her self-deceptions, her voice gains a new musicality: Availing herself of Beatrice's first speech in verse, the actress seems to unlock a dam that has previously walled off feeling at her throat. On the line ''Benedick, love on; I will requite thee,'' her low, sonorous lilt shifts the production's key. The metamorphosis precedes intermission, and Mr. Hands, who serves as his own inspired lighting designer, elevates it into a rapturous climax. The coppery Rembrandt hues that have previously played upon the glassy panels give way to a radiant midnight adazzle with shooting stars.
There's a letdown after intermission, as Shakespeare's principal plot frequently pushes Benedick and Beatrice offstage. Though Clare Byam Shaw's Hero and George Parsons's Friar are unusually forceful - and though Christopher Bowen does well enough by the callow Claudio - the ruptured wedding and its aftermath still seem inconveniences that must be endured. The comic set pieces featuring the malaprop-prone constable Dogberry (Christopher Benjamin) and his watch are laborious.
The first-half orchard scene has also skidded into camp: Mr. Hands has created a farcical showpiece out of the spectacle of Benedick eavesdropping on his dissembling friends - even the walk-on character of the boy is ingeniously employed - but the business has become so hyperbolic that both credibility and laughter are eventually strained. Occasional other lapses aside, it would be hard to improve on such supporting players as Edward Jewesbury's wise yet self-righteous Leonato, Jeffery Dench's Antonio, Ken Bones's pointedly pathetic Don Pedro - and, especially, John Carlisle's Don John, a ''plain-dealing'' villain whose forthright malice perversely makes him the evening's most honest character.
Despite the theater's size, all the actors can be heard. Some minor amplification delivers clear voices without any electronic distortion. The intimacy that's compromised at the Gershwin is visual, not aural. Though the stage has been modestly thrust forward, the actors still seem distant, even from the 12th row. The large black border required to frame the set in the vast proscenium makes us feel that we're looking through the wrong end of a telescope - and it also picks up distracting lighting spills and shadows.
Nothing can distract us from Mr. Jacobi and Miss Cusack, however. In their own special way, they are close to perfection - especially if you make a point of sitting as close to them as you possibly can.