Much Ado About Nothing is froth of an entirely different sort. This William Shakespeare comedy may not have the social commentary of The Merchant of Venice, nor the lyricism
of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but what it possesses is an acerbic wit and two of the greatest anti-lovers ever created. The biting humour of heroes Benedick and Beatrice is in contrast with the more typically sweet, willing affection of second string lovers Hero and Claudio.
With typical Shakespearean convolution, the two pairs must endure a series of complications before ending in the inevitable marriage – or, more accurately, in the dance that precedes the wedding. After all, marriage is a duty, and fun for these characters comes first.
That’s Shakespeare. The production at Wyndham’s starring David Tennant and Catherine Tate is something else again. Shakespeare-Lite, perhaps. Presented with the double-edged sword of the casting, the director must have wondered how to retain the attention of an audience who were there to see Dr Who rather than to see a Shakespearean play. The result resembles The Carry-On Gang do the Bard. (Insert obvious double-entendre here.)
Placing the action in Gibraltar circa 1980, this production takes a few liberties with the ‘play wot he wrote’, the most puzzling of which is the replacement of an uncle for Hero with a mother. Huh? Not only is this decidedly NOT how the play was written, but it makes nonsense of the two cousins, Beatrice and Hero, dependence upon each other for their sense of female identity. Also, having Hero carry on in a most unladylike way (yes, I know how that sounds. Get over it.) during her wedding shower, makes foolishness of her protestations of innocence at her wedding.
This production relies a lot upon slapstick and mugging for the audience. Tennant, in particular, plays up to the indisputable fact that the vast majority of the attendees are
there for him. At times he stands alone on the stage and spends several moments
looking knowingly at each tier, and each span of the auditorium. ‘I know why you’re here’ he seems to be saying. And the audience adores it.
All the high jinks are fun and had the audience laughing till they wept during the Saturday evening show I attended. I don’t blame them; it’s very funny to see Tennant getting smeared in paint as he tries to hide while eavesdropping to the fabricated reports that Beatrice (Tate) is in love with him.
And Beatrice in her turn hides first under a painter’s canvas, then gets hitched up in a harness and swung from the ceiling as she listens to similar tales being told about Benedick’s supposed love for her. There was an almost-wardrobe malfunction the night I attended; Tate lost her mic and almost her clothes, as she swung about above the action. Certainly very funny, but it means the audience completely misses some pivotal dialogue. These scenes set up much of the action that ensues and explain the behaviour of the two characters. I have no problem with injecting some slapstick into the proceedings; certainly, Shakespeare was no above such things himself. But surely such activities should
not intrude on the dialogue and the plot. One wonders how the other cast members feel about being so rudely upstaged each night.
Which brings me to the rest of the cast: Sarah Macrae as the innocent and lovely Hero seemed too tall for the part, and a bit too testy for the sweet and forgiving creature she is meant to be. Claudio, on the other hand, is played with gentlemanly splendour by Tom Bateman. These are both unenviable parts – frankly, they come across as a bit wet when viewed next to the vibrancy of the main pair. Claudio, in particular, must make his rejection of Hero both credible and even sympathetic yet not seem a wuss. It’s a pretty
fine line and Mr Bateman acquitted himself remarkably well.
Adam James is an avuncular Don Pedro and he brings just enough dash and swagger to his part to make him credible.
I must have a thing for the bad guys, though, because for me, Elliot Levey delivered one of the most finely nuanced performances of the night as Don John. He imbues just enough pathos into the character to make him seem far more dimensional than the way he is usually portrayed. (I’m still in therapy over Keanu Reeves ‘acting’ in the Kenneth Branagh film version of the play. I suspect I’m not alone.) The slightly camp undercurrent suggest a sexual jealousy that is focused on Claudio rather than Hero. It would have been nice if he’d been allowed to develop that a bit more.
Then there’s Dogberry. I have to admit, there are few Shakespearean characters I loathe more than this twit. Michael Keaton’s execrable portrayal in the aforementioned film was as subtle as a chainsaw and it takes a fine actor indeed to make him less than infuriating. John Ramm, however, plays the part with utter seriousness and is completely unaware of what an idiot he is. As a result, the character is at the very least, far less annoying than usual. That’s not meant as offence to Mr Ramm. Saying he didn’t make me want to bury him beneath a pile of fardels is high praise.
As for Catherine Tate. Hmm. There was no doubt she was trying hard. Indeed, her effort was very visible in the tension on her face. Her Beatrice is a brittle creature, out of sorts with her time and her environment. Where Hero and the other women float about in beachwear, she dons male suits or dungarees. Her portrayal is all wit and little heart. No wonder Benedick doesn’t want to marry her. At no point did I ever manage to see Beatrice on the stage: only Miss Tate. And by the final scene she was noticeably exhausted and made no effort to sustain the part.
But this was, undoubtedly, David Tennant’s show. He owned the stage and made his Benedick an annoying, too-smart-for-his-own-good smarty pants, whose mocking exterior conceals a noble and even heroic heart. Delivering his lines in Scots brogue and a hefty dollop of relish, he served a tasty dish to his audience and they ate it up.
Much Ado About Nothing is playing at Wyndham’s Theatre until September 3rd.