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Love, betrayal and innocence

Shakespeare's Sicilian tale moves to 1950s Cuba. Heather Neill talks to the director

Much Ado About Nothing

Royal Shakespeare Company

Swan Theatre, in rep until October 2006.

Tel: 0870 609 1110

Much Ado About Nothing, is transposed by director Marianne Elliott to Cuba, circa 1953. In her production, the soldiers are returning, not from a war, but from quelling a rebellion. Claudio falls in love with the governor's daughter, Hero, while Hero's cousin Beatrice and Claudio's friend Benedick spar verbally, only admitting their love for each other when they are tricked into doing so.

Why Cuba? "I wanted to set it as near to now as I could. It doesn't work (in a contemporary setting), particularly the way Hero is treated and how important it is that she's a virgin," says Elliott. Pre-Revolutionary Cuba was patriarchal, imperialistic, a society in which women knew their place, yet as exotic to us as Italy must have been to Shakespeare.

"The play is very Catholic, very patriarchal, full of machismo. Everything that Beatrice says is dangerous but she gets away with it because it's funny. She has a sharp, quick, acerbic wit and the intelligence that goes with it, but a heart as big as it could possibly be," Elliott continues.

"She's in a weak position, a dependant in her uncle Leonato's household.

Both Beatrice and Benedick are vulnerable characters, covering that by wearing a mask of being very capable and very superior."

Beatrice and Benedick have been close before and are both hurt. Elliott thinks that Benedick pulled out of the relationship, and that he knows deep down that what he feels is real love, but can't face that side of himself.

"She can face up to it, but is furious. He feels he'd be compromised if attached - and indeed he is: he becomes a different person," she says.

Everything is to do with reputation: "They are all paranoid about their image being tarnished. That's why Claudio is trapped (when Hero is wrongly accused of infidelity). Leonato also fears for his reputation and needs to keep in with Don Pedro."

When Beatrice orders Benedick: "Kill Claudio", the audience laughs. "When they see Beatrice and Benedick together for the first time they want it to be celebratory, funny," says Elliott. "They start to realise slowly - along with Benedick, because he laughs too at first - that she's serious: she means murder."

Claudio, says Elliott, is, to begin with, merely interested in a canny career move: Hero happens to be with the governor's daughter, who will inherit all his wealth, and he checks that out first. "He learns that love is about trust, not women fulfilling an iconic image," continues Elliott.

The Dogberry scenes were written as a sketch for a clown that Shakespeare knew would fill out the play. The fact that it is the incompetent Watch that sorts out the plot highlights the hypocrisy of the vain soldiers who don't see the most obvious thing - that Hero is innocent.

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