Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Mark Rylance. The Old Vic, London, September 2013.
As we entered the Old Vic for Mark Rylance’s production of Much Ado About Nothing, songs of the 1940s played over the loudspeakers; the programme (which included much propaganda for the Shakespeare-didn’t-write-Shakespeare cause) claimed that the Second World War setting ‘serves both the play’s essential nature and the principal artists’, as if to encourage identification with the leading players rather than with the characters they represented. On a stage otherwise empty and unadorned except for a few chairs was a large plain structure with bare top and sides which served during the course of the action as a kind of inner stage; it could be the arbor for the overhearing scenes, the interior of the church, and the base of the monument from the top of which Claudio delivered his epitaph on the supposedly dead Hero as a kind of state tribute solemnized with the sound of a flypast and a peal of bells. The soldiers, imagined as visitors to an English country house from a nearby American airfield, were gum-chewing and cigarette-smoking G I’s whose demeanour and accents belied the characters’ noble status.
The austerity of the basic setting, which had structural resemblances to the Globe for which Rylance has frequently directed, was set off by inventive production devices of varying success. We first saw Don John (played by Danny Lee Wynter) lying back self-indulgently listening to a gramophone record of Schubert’s ‘Serenade’ from the Schwanengesang. Was this, I wondered, an attempt to give emotional depth to a character who is easily seen as a cardboard villain, as if to suggest that he seeks to destroy Claudio because he himself harbours unrequited romantic longings for Hero? If so the intention remained obscure. Peter Wight playing Dogberry had the merit of not trying too hard to appear to make the character funny but the demerit of failing totally to do so. In an effective piece of simultaneous staging, while Dogberry told Leonato (Michael Elwyn) that the watch had ‘comprehended two auspicious persons’, the wedding guests assembled in the church behind them. Dogberry underwent onstage transformation to Friar Francis for the church scene, speaking the verse sonorously but as prose. Three lively children played members of the Watch with sentimental cuteness and diverted themselves and us with their games at other points of the action. The song ‘Sigh no more, ladies’ became an indulgently protracted set-piece soft-shoe number accompanied by patronizingly would-be funny groovy dancing from the elderly Antonio (Alan David). In his overhearing scene Benedick hid in a trolley for no apparent reason other than the hope that his emergence from it on ‘This can be no trick’ would raise a laugh. Beatrice hid behind it too during her parallel scene. The performance ended with a dance, as the text prescribes.
Pre-publicity for this production centred on the age of the actors playing Beatrice – Vanessa Redgrave, 76 – and Benedick – James Earl Jones, 82. A charming poster showed close-ups of both of them looking delighted to be in each other’s company. As often in Shakespeare, the text gives no precise information about the characters’ ages. Beatrice says that at some time in the past Benedick had lent her his heart a while, and ‘I gave him use for it, a double heart for his single one. Marry, once before he won it of me with false dice.’ This appears to indicate an earlier relationship and may be used to suggest greater maturity than in the callow Claudio and innocent Hero. Redgrave and Jones are not the first to have picked up on this – Simon Russell Beale and Zoe Wanamaker were mature lovers at the National in 2007, and in any case actors are there to act, not to be themselves. Ellen Terry triumphed as Beatrice at the age of 56, and Helen Faucit played the role when she was 62. More important than creating an illusion of youthfulness is the actors’ ability to speak the characters’ lines in a manner that realizes their full intellectual and emotional potential and to match what they say with what they look like. Redgrave was far more successful in doing this than Jones. Grey-haired but slim and sprightly, she moved with grace, and the voice, though now a little underpowered, retains its tonal beauty and was used with intelligence and wit. She was a light-weight Beatrice by comparison with for instance the emotional depth and tenderness that Judi Dench brought to the role, but her acquisition of self-knowledge as the result of hearing that Benedick loves her was tenderly spoken with ‘Can this be true?’ addressed to the front row of the audience in exultant delight that she had found love however late in life. ‘Kill Claudio’, that touchstone of a production’s and its actors’ ability to effect a rapid transition of effect from the comic to the deadly serious, however, was greeted with a big laugh.
Jones did far less to justify his casting. Shambling like a latter-day Falstaff with a permanent hangover, he entered wearing a false nose as if to signal that he was really one of the lads. A clutch at his crotch to express admiration of female beauty was at odds with the character’s elegance of speech. Even more damaging than the lack of physical agility was the slowness of verbal response in his sparring with Beatrice and the failure to mark the transition in the character from misogynist cynic to comically besotted lover. His voice came and went in gusts of varying audibility. There was no acknowledgment of the character’s ironic volte-face in ‘I’ll go get her picture’, and ‘The world must be peopled’, which can be a comic cry of triumph at his belief that he has undergone a sudden revelation, went for nothing. Redgrave showed that age need not dim an actor’s powers of impersonation; Jones, sadly, showed that it can.