I have seen actors from Alan Bates to Matthew Macfadyen play Shakespeare’s Benedick, but – although Mark Rylance in 1992 certainly did something more strangely miraculous with the role – Joseph Millson’s performance in the new RSC production strikes me as definitive. Handsome in voice and in person, he can carry the audience on his roar and draw it into his hush. The elements of wit, anger and vulnerability are thrillingly mixed in this actor: you feel them all when he says of Beatrice “Every word stabs”. He easily lets us laugh at him, so that he clowns the famous eavesdropping scene to the hilt, but next he can be so romantically stunned that, left alone, he can hardly walk a straight line. And it is he, in love, who learns best here to transcend wit: “A college of wit-crackers cannot flout me out of my humour . . . or man is but a giddy thing”.

His Beatrice is Tamsin Greig, who arrives at the RSC fully fledged, with a more melodious grasp of Shakespeare’s language than some of its seasoned actors. Nothing about her performance is tentative: though Beatrice is surely more merry than she makes her, she makes the most of the character’s tough, independent, mature defensiveness. All Beatrice’s wisecracks fall naturally from her lips, but she has grace enough to charm Don Pedro and enough absurdity to be hilarious when, startled, she first overhears that Benedick is in love with her. But, alone, she then reacts to the news with moving, transforming stillness: “What fire is in my ears?”

Here, for the first time in the RSC’s Complete Works season, we have a couple whose emotion for each other is heartstopping. When, amid a scene of grief, she and he first admit to each other that they are in love, passion sweeps over them in the most natural wave: tears, laughs, kisses, and “Kill Claudio” all coming astoundingly together. Yet never in a blur: we hang on every word.

I have no notion why the director, Marianne Elliott, making her RSC debut, has chosen to set Shakespeare’s Messina in the Cuba of 1953, but I rejoice in the result. The world onstage seems marvellously real, every character is brilliantly distinct and the language is so alive that we can feel how thoughts change their course in mid- sentence. Jonny Weir is a superlative Don John: his voice has extraordinary presence, and with scarcely a move he can show us now the pathos of evil and now its comedy. Nicholas Day’s warm, noble Leonato covers a superb range of vivid feeling, Adam Rayner judges the callow humour and affection of Claudio very finely, and it is surprising to find how effectively Bette Bourne turns Dogberry into a camp oddball.

Elliott, recently so fine in her National Theatre account of Ibsen’s Pillars of the Community, proves herself yet again a director of the first rank. And, for the first time in the Complete Works season, the RSC gives us a production that seems completely and happily ready on press night. Which is not to say that I am not impatient to see how it may grow. And I am even more impatient to see Millson and Greig as the Bastard and Constance in King John in July. ★★★★★

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