Theatre Review: Much Ado About Nothing

David Tennant and Catherine Tate sparkle in this modern production

David Tennant and Catherine Tate sparkle in this very modern production

What this adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing lacks in genuine Shakespearian wordplay, it more than makes up for in energy and humour, but I’d recommend anyone after a traditional 17th century experience to stay well away. Strippers and cross-dressing, anyone?

Right from the beginning, when a classical set of pillars gives way to eighties pop, fluorescent beach-wear and the immediately-recognisable Catherine Tate lounging nonchalantly on a sun lounger, it’s inescapably apparent that this will be no ordinary Shakespeare play. Indeed, this is Shakespeare, eighties-style, transported to a Gibraltar in fully-fledged summer holiday mode. David Tennant’s appearance on a golf buggy in a flurry of Union flags and sunglasses, albeit hilarious for fans of the endlessly versatile actor (myself included), merely confirms any initial impressions. And then it just gets weirder.

Tennant and Tate, a double act whose chemistry and wit have been proven time and time again in numerous television appearances from Tate’s own wonderfully funny sketch show to the BBC’s revived, phenomenally successful Doctor Who, are as compelling as expected, inhabiting Shakespeare’s banter between the two would-be lovers with ease. Their combination of perfect comedic timing, empathy and acidic humour give their relationship passion and vibrancy – everything that Benedick and Beatrice’s eventual-romance should be. Flashes of Tate’s famous characters, such as Nan, do appear from time to time, which some might say reveal her lack of range as an actor, but I feel made her Beatrice more likeable and warm; and familiarity with Tate’s style should certainly be no reason to denigrate it. I enjoyed the versatility and found her, and indeed, many of the other actors’, willingness to play around with the dynamics and timing of the script one of the most successful and memorable elements of the performance – that, and the image of David Tennant in lacy stockings complete with cigarette packet tucked under leather miniskirt during the first ‘party’ scene, will remain marked on my memory for some time to come.

Tennant and Tate....a little too good?

Tennant and Tate....a little too good?

‘The regressive plotline grates’

The problem with having a resoundingly successful twosome in the roles of Benedick and Beatrice, however, which, admittedly, Much Ado unquestionably needs, and possesses in spades in this production, is that all other characters fall a little flat in comparison. The rather simplistic plot, essentially an implausible dance of misunderstandings and mistaken identities (the ‘Nothing’ and, to take the play back to its Elizabethan English roots, ‘Noting’ or noticing, of the title), somehow lacks meat when played off against the backdrop of such sparkling protagonists in the two principle roles.

This isn’t really any of the other actors’ faults – Claudio, played by not-even-graduated-from-drama-school-yet Tom Bateman, is darkly ravishing as Hero’s touchy fiancé, while Jonathan Coy is grand, paternal and moving as Hero’s father, Leonato. Don Pedro and Don John are aptly played by Adam James and Elliot Levey, with the magnanimous James managing to appear both playful and mournful in the role of benevolent matchmaker, and Don John just about believable as the sniping and scheming ‘bastard’ brother. The latter only achieves the necessary levels of bile, however, when coupled with [his helper] Conrade, played by the engagingly mischievous Lee Knight, whose mission in life is not only to ruin the upcoming nuptials but also to make work difficult for the endlessly entertaining Watch, a motley crew of supposed vigilantes who, for all its clumsy posturing, eventually holds the key that unlocks the plot’s central misunderstanding. The eminently capable John Ramm plays Dogberry, leader of the Watch, and to the pleasant surprise of all present, is shown here as an army officer clad in camouflage gear, spouting the original text’s malapropisms in an Estuary accent for all the world as if he had written them himself.

But the regressive plotline grates. After a build-up which sees acres of toned and bronzed flesh on show, thumping pop music, strippers (yes, warn your Grandma if she’s got a ticket), smoking, and familiarly modern sarcastic line delivery from many a young actor throughout, the apex of emotion that comes when the purity and virginity of the bride Hero (played well, given the sighing boredom of her role, by newcomer Sarah McCrae) is called into question, far from sending shockwaves through the traditional wedding scene, seems at odds with the show of liberation displayed throughout the rest of the performance. Herein lies one of the issues with ‘updating’ Shakespeare; such adaptation may bring the characters closer to the audience initially, but the still-Elizabethan values of the plot, so misaligned with the supposed modernisation, only serve to push the protagonists further away when all is finally revealed.

Jonathan Coy plays Leonato

Jonathan Coy plays Leonato

‘Disturbingly effective…but uncomfortable’

The drama of the scene is never in question; Claudio’s pain and revulsion is clear, culminating in a disturbingly effective night-time drinking session to the tune of heavy rock music under the ominously symbolic statue of Mary in the previously airy church; while Leonato’s own disgust at his daughter’s apparent betrayal is equally convincing, if not a little bit uncomfortable. Indeed, a modern viewer cannot help but wonder where the bite and banter, and, frankly, post-1960s sexual liberation, of the previous scenes are hiding when Hero is mistakenly accused of pre-marital infidelity – staying faithful to Shakespeare’s original text and message is one thing, but pitching the story 500 years too late and then asking the audience to remain appalled when a past century’s patriarchal obsession rears its ugly head leaves me feeling rather more hollow than an authentic reproduction of the scene might otherwise have done. Perhaps I’m being too harsh; after all, the engaged Hero is being accused of infidelity, which, admittedly, is hardly countenanced today – her family’s upset at the public revelation is clearly understandable.

But it’s not so much the accusation of Hero which stung me (for all its untruthfulness), but the other characters’ complete lack of ability to protect her. Beatrice’s later remonstrances of ‘Oh to be a man!’, while compounding her relationship with Benedick, seem rather lacklustre against the backdrop of modern confidence and apparent gender equality shown in the previous acts. Shakespeare’s juxtaposition of the two couples; Claudio and Hero, so sweet and servile, and Benedick and Beatrice, so sharp and well-matched, serves to heighten their characteristics further, and is one of the pleasing contrasts in an otherwise rather benign play, but one can’t help but feel that setting the text in such a flamboyant, modern arena makes it altogether too difficult to truly display the full intentions behind Shakespeare’s exploration of the politics of male and female relationships and social hierarchy.

Despite the overall impression of the production as rather superficial, however, its alacrity  and creativity should not be underestimated. Tennant’s turn as eavesdropper to the intentionally-revealing conversation about Beatrice is a particularly fantastic show of farce, rightfully rewarded with a rapturous round of applause when the hapless and unwieldy figure emerges covered in white paint and realises he is the object of Beatrice’s desires. The crisp whites of the military men, ruffled Princess Diana-esque bridal gown, eighties brights, full-on party gear and sharp wedding attire are also commendable, and almost characters in themselves, smoothly running throughout the production to provide an effective contrast between the relaxed holiday mode and slick-suited, we-mean-business atmospheres of the first and second halves of the play respectively.

Much Ado About Nothing at Shakespeare's Globe, Bankside

Much Ado About Nothing at Shakespeare's Globe, Bankside

‘Raucously entertaining’

So, while I left the theatre slightly less overwhelmed than I had perhaps hoped to be given the extent to which I adore the two main stars, there’s no denying that this adaptation of Much Ado was a raucously entertaining night out at the theatre. See it to revel in the much-loved wit of Tennant and Tate, see it to embrace seventeenth-century iambic pentameter along with eighties rock, see it to wake you up from any residual preconceptions that the bard’s plays should always be earnest and dull – see it if only to witness the unprecedented, and rather glorious, it has to be said, marriage between stag do and Shakespeare.

But if it’s authentic, full-skirt and cod-piece-wearing, careful presentation of the folio’s original text you’re wanting, look elsewhere – perhaps, albeit predictably, to the very wonderful Globe theatre on the Southbank, which is as we speak beginning its production of Much Ado as part of its summer foray into the King James Bible. Without, and on this I’m almost entirely certain, any strippers, cigarettes or golf buggies in sight.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Much Ado About Nothing is playing at the Wyndhams Theatre, Charing Cross Road, until 1st September 2011

Much Ado About Nothing is also playing at The Globe Theatre, New Globe Walk, until 1st October 2011

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