I like to think of myself as a positive theatre-goer. I want to enjoy the show and I will forgive flaws in a production if it’s interesting. Take Michael Sheen’s Hamlet at the Young Vic last year for example: also directed by Mark Rylance, it represented Elsinore as a psychiatric institution which, as a premise, is fundamentally problematic. But, it gave rise to some inspired, at times terrifying, performances and, perhaps more importantly, offered an intelligent, interrogating reading of the play. It had a clear sense of direction not determined by casting but derived from the director’s vision. It worked. I would like to point out that I have the utmost respect and indeed affection for Mark Rylance both as an actor and a director. Similarly, I love James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave; they are true titans of their profession. I saw Earl Jones as Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof a few years ago and I thought he was fantastic, the famous depth and resonance of his voice just sang through the lyricism of the Williams script and he effused the failing, brutal power of the ailing patriarch that dominates that play.
I was genuinely excited by the casting of this latest production of Much Ado currently showing at The Old Vic I like the idea of Benedick and Beatrice as lovers from times past as the text hints that they were – “I know you of old”, Beatrice says at the end of their first onstage encounter – and there is undoubtedly something charming about watching an older couple being tricked into admitting their love for one another. Redgrave sparkles with child-like glee and does manage to scamper around the stage bringing some much-needed energy to an otherwise flat production. It is unfortunate perhaps, that this is my favourite comedy and it is also possible that I have been spoilt by the David Tennant-Catherine Tate production that was in London a couple of years ago which was terrific, but, the fact of the matter is that this latest incarnation of a play I adore is just desperately disappointing.
The text requires an energy and dynamism: the battle of wits between Beatrice and Benedick is among the liveliest relationships in any of Shakespeare’s plays and, as in most comedy, timing is all. There is a rhythm to each exchange, not only determined by the pentameter of the verse but by the height of emotion and sexual tension that suffuses each squabble and skirmish. The gulling scenes don’t need to be physical but they are so much funnier when they are: who can keep a straight face as Kenneth Brannagh’s deck chair collapses or David Tennant manages to cover himself in white paint? The comedy should translate beautifully for a contemporary audience: bickering-lovers-forced-to-acknowledge-their-true-feelings is far more accessible than twin-sister-is-shipwrecked-pretends-to-be-boy-falls-in-love-with-master-while-wooing-lady-on-his-behalf-who-mistakenly-falls-in-love-with-her but it just didn’t come through. In an interview for the Telegraph Vanessa Redgrave claims not to know what Beatrice was saying half the time and unfortunately it showed. You can’t just say the words, you have to feel your way into them and find the beat. In a play where the very title invokes the insubstantial, the staging didn’t help: stark and wooden it seemed to actively seal out the vitality of the play leaving it soulless and, as I mentioned earlier flat.
I have no doubt that my reservations about the production are in part an unfortunate side-effect of knowing and loving the play so well but having seen some damned fine Shakespeare recently, I just feel a bit short-changed; not financially but emotionally (or even intellectually if that’s not too pretentious…?). I’m thoroughly looking forward to seeing Tennant as Richard II in January and the Othello I saw at the National in June has stayed with me (it starred Adrian Lester who, incidentally, played Brick alongside Earl Jones in the version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof I mentioned and is about to reprise his role in Red Velvet at the wonderful Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn). Indeed, there are strong parallels between these two plays, the dark comedy comes very near the edge of tragedy. Like Othello, Claudio believes himself the victim of infidelity and his response is just as chilling. Claudio too, places too much faith in “proof”. He will not mourn her apparent death, nor regret his public defamation until the truth is revealed . Until she is proved honest he receives her death as a restoration of virtue and honour, just as Othello reasons himself into violence towards Desdemona. In many ways, the world of Much Ado is darker than that of Othello: Othello and Iago stand isolated as flawed and venomous characters but here the supposedly benevolent Don Pedro supports Claudio’s actions and even Hero’s father Leonato vows to “tear her to pieces” if the allegations made against her are shown to be true. The power of female sexuality in the male imagination is at the centre of both these plays, generating fear and spinning the action outwards in ribbons of deceit and misunderstanding. Something that resonates today where women who voice opinions, offensive by virtue of the fact that they are opinions expressed by women, are subject to rape threats and verbal abuse of a graphically sexual nature.
At a time when the accessibility of Shakespeare is the subject of public debate it seems to me that our theatrical institutions have a responsibility to demonstrate the power of the play, to be ambitious not only in the production but in the audience they are trying to reach, to show that the words are still funny and dark and relevant and, most importantly, to prove that it is NOT the preserve of the wealthy and educated. Shakespeare is and should be for everyone, not just those who can afford the tickets and laugh in the ‘right places’. All things, I’m sad to say, this production wholly fails to do.