To the Wyndham’s theatre last Thursday to see Josie Rourke’s production of Much Ado About Nothing starring David Tennant as Benedick and Catherine Tate as Beatrice. A small coach full of colleagues (staff and volunteers) from The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust made the much anticipated jaunt down from Stratford-upon-Avon. We were not disappointed, and it was a hugely entertaining outing.
I admired the production very much as a staging of the play, and also found points of comparison to make with Rupert Goold’s The Merchant of Venice currently played by the R.S.C. Both plays come from a similar period in Shakespeare’s creative development, though there is more prose in Much Ado About Nothing.
The setting seemed to be a sun-drenched Sicilian villa, hotel-like but not quite public enough to be a hotel. This was Leonato’s private home. The costuming was modern-dress, but with some emphases on the 1980s. Hero’s wedding-dress was reminiscent of the late Princess of Wales’s from 1981; Don John the Bastard’s mask for the ball was Margaret Thatcher (he also carried a hand-bag as part of the disguise). Pop music was wittily interpolated into the action. Unlike the recourse to Elvis songs in Rupert Goold’s production of The Merchant of Venice (or The Merchant of Vegas as it’s become known, on the account of its setting in a Las Vegas casino), the music here was made up of original and fresh compositions of other Shakespeare songs. The masked dancers bopped to verses from ‘Who is Sylvia’ from The Two Gentlemen of Verona. A simultaneous stag night for Claudio and hen night for Hero took place on opposite sides of a revolving stage which moved round to a disco setting of Sonnet 144, ‘Two loves I have, of comfort and despair.’
Tennant is certainly most at home in comedy (I recall him jigging and ambling his way through Hamlet in 2008) and used every characteristic nuance of his facial expression – one raised eyebrow, two raised eyebrows, disbelieving, boyish glances, penetrating stares, wide-mouthed disbelief, desire, appreciation – to bring Benedick to believable and super-real life. He came forward to the front of the proscenium-arch stage and spoke to us all every bit as intimately as he might have done on a thrust stage, and we were all able to see his face and read his body language easily. His talent for slapstick found place in the famous eavesdropping scene by the end of which he had managed to cover himself with paint. Later, appearing with a Bontempi-style electronic organ, we saw him trying to compose the beginnings of his love poem to Beatrice which couldn’t help but turn into ‘When the Saints go marching in.’
Catherine Tate was for me a revelation as Beatrice. She brought to the role just the right level of being a misfit and was easily comfortable with Shakespeare’s language. It is an expertise I hope we see her exercise more often. Not being familiar (very much) with her television comedy persona (except to know that it is associated with an aggressively mean sort of humour) her being suspended aloft during her eavesdropping scene was lost on me. Certainly it killed the dialogue taking place between Ursula and Hero. It’s possible that here Beatrice was being used as an occasion to meet out some kind of revenge on Tate’s own televisual comic personality. This represented, though, the only real intrusive silliness of the production. She managed to switch the mood to confidential joy for her following lines, the only Beatrice speaks poetry. Hers was definitely a Beatrice born ‘to speak all mirth and no matter’ (2.1.308-9). Her handling of the moment when Beatrice asks Benedick to ‘Kill Claudio’ (4.1.290) for Claudio’s defamation of Hero was delivered after her having defensively laughed (a characteristic she used to good effect in several places). The effect of this was successfully to pre-empt the audience laughing at her request (which traditionally actors playing the part tend to worry about). Instead, ‘Kill Claudio’ sounded suddenly shocking.
This production was well performed across the board. Special mention should go to John Ramm’s Dogberry who succeeded because he was able to trust the reality of the role, rather than trying to make it funny. Adam James’s Don Pedro was multi-layered and complicated, truly longing to marry Beatrice when he proposes to her, yet left quite, and questioningly, alone at the end. Anna Farnworth made a surprising presence out of Innogen, Leonato’s silent wife in the early texts who was here given some of his lines and became a role in her own right.
And, in contrast to the R.S.C.’s The Merchant of Venice, this was a production set recognizably in our own time and one which didn’t apologise for Shakespeare’s language. Where as in The Merchant of Venice the actors have to put a great deal of energy into adopting a range of inconsistent American accents not their own in an attempt to make the language sound more casual, soap-opera-like, and therefore somehow more ‘accessible’, here the actors spoke in their own voices. Tennant’s own Glaswegian twang was in full swing – a salutary reminder that speaking Shakespeare in your own voice is the best starting point for breathing energetic life into his extraordinary language.