Thursday, 12 September 2013

Much ado about nothing

Old Vic theatre
7 September - 30 November 2013

James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave an untypically  elderly Benedick and Beatrice.

When only Dogberry sparkles, a production of this comedy must be a failure, despite some interesting ideas. 

In the one brilliant idea in Mark Rylance’s production, the moment when Claudio accuses Hero of being a whore – on their wedding day, to maximise the pain, as Beatrice points out – the association with Othello is visually reinforced. Claudio, and his friends, are played entirely by black actors. Hero’s circle is white.

In both Othello and Much Ado, catastrophe results from sexual jealousy on absurdly weak grounds. If sense is restored in this comedy, in some ways that is actually less justifiable than in the tragedy.

What motivates Leonato’s horrifying response when he believes his daughter has deceived him? After she has witnessed these rages from her father and future husband, can Hero genuinely forgive and forget?

So “much ado”, even if it were about something, rather than nothing. This other great exploration of sexual jealousy is just as shocking as Othello, though the author stabilises us by adding the wonderful Dogberry and company at the key moment.

The catastrophe is almost impossible to ruin in the theatre, and this production conveys its power, thanks principally to a marvellous performance of Michael Elwyn as Leonato.

That Claudio is subsequently willing to marry practically anyone, so long as he can reduce his guilt over this catastrophe, provides the Shakespearean uneasiness over endings in marriage.

This is ingeniously signposted by the parallel betrothal of Beatrice and Benedick, and the boisterous expectation of infidelity. Given prior events and with Othello in our mind, theirs is a healthy attitude, though nihilistic, raising the question of quite why they decide to give in to each other.

New light is shone on this question by the production’s major innovation: having the bickering lovers played by James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave, 82 and 76 respectively.

“The world must be peopled” is Benedick’s rejection of his sempiternal batchelorhood, but it can be peopled without marriage. Perhaps he is thinking of the effect being a bastard has on the villainous Don John. Here, given their considerable ages, Benedick’s argument is especially unconvincing.

Unfortunately neither actor is especially convincing in these roles, which are the glory of the drama. Redgrave has the stronger part, as usual with this author, and does more with it, but the prose is especially hard to bring off in the theatre, and much of their bickering was lost on me.

When actors fear Shakespeare’s now-archaic jokes are going to fall flat, they are tempted to broad physical comedy, and Rylance should have reined this in. There is a difference between two elderly actors rejecting the dignity we assume they must want, and actors of any age whatsoever behaving like buffoons to get a  laugh.

The setting is 1940s England, with Don Pedro and his team being African-American airmen stationed in a cosy English village. In fact, cosy is the word for at least the whole first half, which was so enervated I struggled to maintain any interest at all.

If after the interval things picked up, at no point did they fizz as needed in a witty comedy.

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