Much Ado About Nothing* (Old Vic, 13 September 2013)

Posted: September 13, 2013 in Theatre

photo-97Since the consignment of “…the Shrew” to the graveyard for the politically incorrect,”Much Ado…” has taken over as the Bard’s most popular rom-com, popping up everywhere at regular intervals. Its most hilarious incarnation in recent years was at the National where the only slight criticism was that Zoe Wanamaker and Simon Russell Beale may have been a little on the old side playing Beatrice and Benedick. That criticism now pales into insignificance as we see Vanessa Redgrave, 76, and James Earl Jones, 82, taking on those roles; bold casting it would seem, but surely, we thought, with that great Shakespearean actor Mark Rylance directing, the production would be in safe hands. Wrong! Maybe the desire was to showcase the sweetness of post-Autumnal romance, but, if so, this was never going to be the play in which to do so. A second odd choice is to set the play in England in 1944, with American troops mingling in with the locals; this setting does nothing to illuminate the play and serves only to undermine credibility as we witness GIs, in an army seemingly with no retirement age, addressing each other as “Señor” “Don” and “Count”. In general, there is nothing wrong with classic plays being reinvigorated with imaginative interpretations, provided they work within the spirit of the play; in this case, the interpretation always works against the play and diminishes its strengths. Of course there is pleasure in hearing the unmistakeable voices of two legendary actors booming around the Old Vic and they give us occasional glimpses of how wonderful they could have been as these characters 40 years ago, but, sadly, at this performance, the diction of both seemed flawed and too many of Shakespeare’s best lines floated into thin air and remained unheard by many in the audience. Highlights of the evening include an uncle trying to marry-off his septuagenarian niece to a gallant war hero who waddles around the stage looking like a suntanned Captain Mainwaring; this is not funny in the way that Shakespeare intended, it is simply ridiculous. At several other points, ripples of embarrassed laughter run through the audience as the text suggests these characters’ intended ages. There are a few decent performances amongst the supporting cast, but mostly they are ordinary and the two principals should not shoulder all the blame for the entire production being leaden-footed and lifeless. Things are not helped by a dreary all brown stage design. Possibly this is the biggest disservice to Shakespeare seen at the Old Vic since Peter O’Toole played Macbeth here to unprecedented critical derision; on that occasion, the public rushed to see the debacle for themselves and sell-out audiences howled with laughter for the entire run. So there lies a ray of hope for this awful production; it might be better for it not to improve, rather for it to get even worse.

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