Lovers and fighters convene at an opulent Sicilian hotel, though the battle won at the start of Shakespeare’s comedy seems rather vague here: there is an air of celebration and some military uniforms but no fascist iconography or any giveaway clue. Is Mussolini’s reign the backdrop to the fun and revelry upfront? It could be the jazz age or equally a corner of the 1930s untouched by war.
But never mind the detail because Simon Godwin’s production does not seek to commit itself to anything as prosaic as reality. This Sicily is situated in an indistinct “imagined past” which looks like a decadent 20th-century fantasyland.
This is the National Theatre’s second comedy with two romances at its heart this season (to accompany Jack Absolute Flies Again, which opened last week). It brings an easy sense of fun, then a brief turn into darkness, before gliding back to froth again.
There is a live swing band, with Dario Rossetti-Bonell as music director, plus song, dance (both excellent) and Evie Gurney’s gorgeous costume designs of slinky silks, ostrich feathers and glittered suits, which channel a glamorous Fred and Ginger vibe.
Anna Fleischle’s art deco stage design has cool mints and pinks – as if fetched up from the ocean liner in Anything Goes at the Barbican. It sounds like Cole Porter, too, at times. This is Shakespeare in the swing age, its drama turned into stylish screwball comedy. It is a solid conceit, executed well, which gets better in the second half after Hero and Claudio’s aborted wedding.
The comedy is to be admired here rather than enjoyed for full-on laughs. Pivotal scenes of eavesdropping and comic deceit, when Benedick and Beatrice are fooled into admitting their love for each other, appear like carefully choreographed slapstick, neat and elegant (unlike Lucy Bailey’s recent production at the Globe which had fizzing set pieces of physical comedy around the characters’ gulling).
John Heffernan shines brightest as a dorkish Benedick; Katherine Parkinson’s Beatrice is wry and cute but she is, surprisingly, not at her finest in comedy mode. Their sniping does not light up the stage and they are, in fact, much more convincing in the most dramatic part of the play when they convince us of their ardent love – and Beatrice’s shock at cousin Hero’s public shaming. Godwin navigates the awkwardness of this play’s parts masterfully, and there are sudden plunges into serious drama, like synapses within the comedy, which reveal just how controlled a production this is in its tonal changes.
Eben Figueiredo stands out for his portrayal of Claudio, who turns on his betrothed Hero (Ioanna Kimbook) so savagely. He brings the same smiling lover’s vapidity to this role as he did to Jamie Lloyd’s Cyrano de Bergerac, speaking in conspicuous London cadences, but there is jealous intensity there too, and a genuine sense of regret. Wendy Kweh’s Antonia (gender-switched from the original Antonio, and now Hero’s mother) overshadows Leonato (Rufus Wright) with her righteous passion and rage in the scenes after Hero has been exonerated.
Another triumph is in making the painfully strained illogicality of Dogberry’s (David Fynn) humour work. Here, the often protracted scenes of arcane humour move at quite a pace and avoid longueurs.
The production does not, perhaps, plunge deeply enough into the play’s darkness, and no one actor commands our attention, but they all form a very able ensemble. It does not seek to make any newly trenchant points about the gender war hidden in plain view either, with the men’s outright distrust of women in the plotline and Beatrice’s subversion of feminine obedience and convention. But this is a polished fantasy, extremely easy on the eye and a consummate midsummer comedy. You walk away not hugely moved or surprised – but certainly entertained.
At the National Theatre’s Lyttelton theatre, London, until 10 September.