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The American masthead
1040 Abroad

Much Ado About Nothing
By William Shakespeare
Old Vic Theatre, London

Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell

Vanessa Redgrave in Much Ado About Nothing. Photo: Simon Annand
Vanessa Redgrave in Much Ado About Nothing. Photo: Simon Annand
On the night of 30 January 1937, Michael Redgrave was on the Old Vic stage playing Laertes to Olivier's Hamlet. When the curtain fell, Olivier walked to the footlights and said "Ladies and gentlemen, tonight a great actress has been born. Laertes has a daughter". 76 years later that daughter is, amazingly, making her debut on that stage having conquered the worlds of stage and film in the interim.

Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones last starred together in Driving Miss Daisy and seeing the ease between the duo, inspired the actor/director and ex Shakespeare's Globe 'supremo' to cast them as the sparring lovers, Beatrice and Benedick, in this rather unconventional take on Shakespeare's beloved comedy.

The piece is the template for all the 'rom coms' which followed, from Tracey & Hepburn to Crystal & Ryan, and the casting of Beatrice-Benedick now overrides any other aspects, although technically the Claudio-Hero plot is the main one. In terms of performance history directors have always played fast and loose with it, setting it in almost every conceivable location and period.

Here, Rylance sets it in rural war torn England of 1944, where the visiting soldiers are American GI's, mostly black, who have brought with them the liberating rhythms of the latest music, jazz. Music director Claire van Kampen has suffused the piece with the golden nostalgia of 1940s popular music, so there's some boogie-woogie and a great blues take on the air Sigh No More.
This staging has riled the critical establishment but it's a production more sinned against than sinning. Eschewing the usual, rather irritatingly winsome, take on this material, Rylance has given it an American voice and frankly it represents a breath of fresh air. In terms of tone it is all over the place but then it's a problem text. The notion of male honor and the gender politics of the play will never gel with any modern staging, so whatever solution a director comes up with, he will invariably create a new set of problems. Beatrice's vengeful cry of "Kill Claudio" has raised a nervous laugh in productions as much as it has created a fearful chill.

Much Ado About Nothing, James Earl Jones
James Earl Jones in Much Ado About Nothing. Photo: Simon Annand
Ultz's strikingly abstract set, an all-teak room dominated by a very high, flat-topped arch resembling a coffee table, doesn't lend itself to the traditionalists who might prefer characters peering out from behind assorted bushes in front of painted backdrops of Messina, but it has its own beauty and it works in terms of providing cover for the endless eavesdropping.

Just as in opera you suspend your disbelief about the romantic couplings (Pavarotti needing a regular sit down during L'Elisir d'Amore), here the age-blind casting of the leads is soon forgotten, especially when Redgrave is as radiant and youthful as she is. Supporting performances, all age appropriate, are strong with Peter Wight as Dogberry, Tim Barlow as Verges and Penelope Beaumont as Ursula particularly fine.

With a convoluted plot like this to wade through, the pacing is always a problem and matters are not helped by Jones's somnolent energy levels. The American accompanying me found his diction and projection just perfect but Redgrave's problematic, whereas I found the exact opposite. Just goes to show, it depends on what your ear has been attuned to.

Productions of this play come along as frequently as buses, so the traditionalists won't have long to wait, but at least here Rylance has been daring and given us a chance to wallow one more time in the presence of these acting greats.



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