Gosh, how unwhingerish. Two Shakespeares in one week and on consecutive days no less.
A rare group outing and appropriately there was much ado about Much Ado About Nothing too. People were dropping out like all over the place. There were more withdrawals than a Roman orgy. 50% of the group fell by the wayside to be replaced by members on the waiting list. One person dropped out, dropped back in, then irritatingly dropped out again. Andrew never dropped in in the first place. Do we know a lot of people who possess the gift of foresight ?
There was always going to be curiosity value in Mark Rylance‘s production as something to tell the imaginary grandchildren about; the parts of Beatrice and Benedict are taken by Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones who come with an impressive combined age of 158 and grandchildren of their own (well, Redgrave does anyway).
In the interest of disclosure, we must state that this was an early preview so perhaps the lines will appear more secure in the leads’ heads by the opening (though possibly not according to someone who saw it 5 performances after us), voice projection improved and there will not be the seat-gripping tension of wondering if they will make it to the end of a sentence let alone the end of the play.
We’ve never seen a prompter sitting in the middle of the front row before. He was only utilised on one occasion and there was no problem with his projection, unsurprisingly his head was bobbing up and down over the text like one of those car back window dogs.
But it did detract from the tale of two pairs of lovers, Claudio and Hero and the aforementioned B and B, the adversarial latter pair disdain love but are tricked into believing the other is in love with them, providing the most entertaining scenes late into Act 1, hinting that everything might turn around and we might be treated to a satisfying second act. Quite a few obviously weren’t as optimistic and capitalised on the interval as a time to flee to safer ground. Some who stayed used Act 2 to catch up on sleep, including three on the end of our row and two in separate stage-side boxes, which must have been horribly disconcerting for the cast.
The biggest laugh of the evening came when a cast member borrowed a chair from one of the boxes. Was this improvised on the night to wake them up? It was a welcome moment of levity but did draw attention to the audience members’ naps.
Rylance locates his production in forties wartime Britain. Prince Don Pedro’s troops are visiting American GIs, that much we understood, but with so many early lines swallowed it’s best to arrive with a firm grip on the plot. Our party of 10, located in the 5th and 6th rows of the stalls all confessed to be unable to hear clearly initially and were struggling with plot details at the interval.
Things are not helped with the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre-ish decision to stage the action in evenly bright lighting throughout, this spills over half the stalls and doesn’t help the atmosphere. Ultz’s attractive but static set is a solid rectangular arch, looks like an art installation in a municipal hall and causes occasional sightline problems during key scenes even from good stalls seats. There is so much wooden veneer on display one might almost call it venereal.
Redgrave puts pauses into lines in strange places, but she did get a big laugh (from some, with a liking for the camper things in life) for her first appearance in knee-high laced up boots, corduroy jacket and carrying a shotgun and dead rabbits. Later she wears a pair of slacks most elegantly, but she’s also saddled with a terrible floral print dress which must have caused a few headaches even if you were seated in the far reaches of the Lilian Baylis Circle.
There’s a few decent performances among the supporting cast who attempt to inject some zip into the proceedings. Peter Wight is a splendid Dogberry/Friar and should teach some of the cast about vocal clarity. Tim Barlow steals scenes just banging cymbals or upstaging in the background doing a Wilson, Keppel and Betty style dance and there’s a neat twist on the leads’ senior ages by having the local Watch played by young children. And despite Jones’ fumbling or swallowing many lines he has a wonderfully likeable stage charisma which just about pulls him through.
A bit of a mess at this point, the stunt casting hasn’t paid off and it felt horribly under-rehearsed. No doubt things will improve, but at this third preview it did appear Rylance has much to do about an awful lot.