Guest review – Much Ado About Nothing, National Theatre

Tuesday 18 December 2007

Due to our general aversion to Shakespeare, we delegated this one to Channel 4 News presenter Samira Ahmed. Thanks, Sam.

“There are no pole-dancing girls in Agent Provocateur underwear for the scene changes,” observed my husband, B, in the interval, managing to disguise any disappointment. “Are you sure this is directed by Nicholas Hytner?”

Remarkably it was. And although much of the set resembled the Latin town that gets raped and pillaged in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, it was dominated by a totally Hytnered angular wooden Japanese-style structure, complete with lanterns straight out of the climax to Kill Bill Vol 1.

Given that the plot features strong women, and a wronged bride, I wondered if Hytner was planning a violent Tarantino-esque departure from the text. But although someone does come on wielding a 6 foot long sword at one point, Much Ado About Nothing is not Macbeth.

Now, if you don’t think you like Shakespeare (Phil and Andrew, pay attention please) then Much Ado might epitomise the problem. There are a lot of actual “Hey Nonnys” in this one. There are comic poor people (Constable Dogberry and his Watchmen). And there is one of those plots that involves rich Dukes conceiving and then acting out overly complex deceptions on other people, with the help of annoyingly compliant servants.

But (big confession here) Much Ado is my favourite Shakespeare play. Nearly all of it is sparkling dialogue; no annoying digressions about the nature of Kingship that brought even Patrick Stewart’s exhilarating Macbeth to a juddering halt. The comedy only just manages to contain the deeply nasty heart.

This is a play about honour killing. It’s set in hot and sultry Sicily, remember. And 350 years before Hepburn and Tracey there was Beatrice and Benedick. Sexy, sparring and “I hate you but I love you really” every time they meet.

But while Simon Russell Beeeeaaale (as I think of him) and Zoë Wanamaker are top thesp talent, I was wondering if I’d be convinced by their autumnal lovers. Wanamaker still has that sharp-eyed girlish charm, but when portly Beale comes on at the start in weathered jerkin and boots after a supposed military victory you do think, “No way did you use that sword.”

And yet… and yet, he wins her heart, and won me over, too. And it’s meant as no insult when I say he displayed the comic timing of Oliver Hardy in the climax to the scene where all the characters keep narrowly avoiding falling into a very prominent and genuinely water-filled pool. The gimmick keeps the audience happy, although that did then just make them worse.

In the most dramatic scene, Beatrice’s innocent and virginal cousin Hero (Susannah Fielding — beautiful, convincing, uncloying) is publicly spurned and humiliated at the altar by her fiance-with-a-Madonna-and-whore-complex, Claudio. Benedick confesses his love and promises to do anything for Beatrice. “Kill Claudio”, she urges. Now this is supposed to be really scary, people. But the audience all burst into laughter. That’s what having your cast fall into pools does, you see?

“Why do I increasingly feel I am trapped with an audience of Little Britain characters when I come to the National Theatre?” I asked B in despair in the interval. I suggested that perhaps some of the Noel Coward fans had sneaked in from the cancelled performance of Present Laughter the same night.

B suggested that I was getting a bit possessive of the play.

In return I pointed out that B seemed to be staring at the feet of Antonio (John Burgess) whenever he was on. This was the first time we’d seen Burgess on stage since The Alchemist more than a year ago, when B had recommended him for a casting for an advert he’d written. The nice grey haired gentleman had slipped on the step of the audition venue and broken (we heard) a leg. Right in the middle of the run too. “There’s no sign of a limp, you know,” whispered B, the guilt lifting almost visibly. “Maybe it was his arm he broke,” I observed. “He’s not moving it much”.

And what of the cast who hadn’t been hospitalised by either of us? Despite my initial fear that he sounded and looked a bit like Mr Claypole from Rentaghost, (blame the borrowed RSC’s male costuming and the little beard) Daniel Hawksford was powerfully convincing as Claudio. Think of him as a Sicilian Ethan Hawke – sincere in his simplistic fantasy about bedding a cute European babe like in those Richard Linklater movies – but a macho religious fundamentalist underneath. I can’t say this production stole my heart. But Simon Russell Beale brought a wistful tear to my eye by the end.

But to end where we started.. with strippers and underwear.

Mark Addy (yes, from The Full Monty) nearly steals the show as Dogberry with Trevor Peacock as Verges. Addy is a natural with Shakespeare. Amazing. And though there are a lot of maidens in corsets and Italianate-costuming doing some annoying pretend-milling and banter on stage before the start of each half (God, 10 minutes of it while the audience settles in!).

I was pleased that there wasn’t a single spilling cleavage. Though can I ask why women are never allowed to wear a discreet bra under their costumes? (M and S does backless/strapless flesh-toned support, you know). At the risk of sounding like my mum (who is an actress), they’ll all regret it after gravity’s done its worst.

Sorry about that digression, but you were never going to worry about the state of these gels’ chests, were you, Whingers?

7 Responses to “Guest review – Much Ado About Nothing, National Theatre”

  1. alan bowles Says:

    The banter at the begining of each half was neither annoying nor intrusive. It was also a delight to see and hear the band playing the audiance in and out.

  2. “The comedy only just manages to contain the deeply nasty heart. This is a play about honour killing.”

    No it isn’t. It’s a play which features a medically questionable (faked) death-from-a-broken-heart, and a man (Claudio) not wanting to marry a woman who he believes he has witnessed spending the night with another man the day before their wedding. On these grounds it seems fair enough not to want to marry her. Granted it was a smells and bells church wedding (with authentic smells, fact fans), but this hardly makes Claudio a religious fundamentalist; I suspect most atheists would be more than a little browned off too.

  3. Paul Salisbury Says:

    I have to agree with Alan Bowles, that the characters mingling on stage before the play began was great to see. It was a suttle way of defining Beatrice’s non-conformist character as she behaved differently to the other women. I thought this, the live band and also the maids who were ‘cleaning’ the set brought a large amount of ecological validity to the production.
    Also I feel that the singer who played Balthasar, who had fantastic hair by the way, showed an enormous amount of talent.
    Although I have to agree that it annoyed me that the audience laughed at the climax of the play at the ‘kill claudio’ line.

  4. Isabella Deste Says:

    I agree with the bit out audience laughter. I know Much Ado is a comedy but I found myself surrounded by people who let out a noise much like a laugh but without the joy at the end of practically every line spoken – infuriating. I’m sure it’s a sort of automatic response and not because the person has genuinely found the line funny.

  5. Simone Says:

    Ach! I won’t see this until 17 March – too far away!

  6. Martin Jones Says:

    There was plenty of laughter at last night’s performance but not at the ‘Kill Claudio’ line – more shouts of encouragement – especially from the schollkids in the audience. They really didn’t like Claudio and rightly so.

    One of the best Shakespear productions I’ve ever seen – brilliant.

  7. I have to say, not very many laughed at the Kill Claudio line when I saw in on Monday (March 17). There were a lot of coaches parked outside the National that I was worried my evening would be ruined by school kids but they were behaved and really enjoyed this production.

    Martin, totally agree with you on your last sentence! I wish I had booked more than once so I can see it again, but it’s sold out now.

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