Sunday, 24 July 2011

"Much Ado About Nothing," starring David Tennant and Catherine Tate, at the Wyndhams Theatre (July 22nd 2011)

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

The tickets to go to see this play were my birthday present from my lovely, tolerant husband.  We took the opportunity to have a couple of days in London (he dragged me to "The Doctor Who Experience" -  which I probably won't write a post on, as I expect he will - and I dragged him to some culture).

To start this post, I feel the urge to state my intellectual high ground and differentiate myself from the girl next to me, who was screaming David Tennant's name during the curtain calls.  I have long standing fan credentials, as I discovered him long before he was in "Doctor Who" when I saw him in a BBC series called "Takin' Over the Asylum," which was also the foundation for my admiration for his fellow Scottish actor Ken Stott.  David Tennant is a very talented actor whose career since then I have followed with interest, and I was happy when his career intersected with my husband's "Doctor Who" obsession.  However, I won't deny that it helps a lot that David Tennant is very attractive, funny and intelligent, and I have a predilection for men with Scottish accents.  As "Much Ado About Nothing" has been one of my favourite Shakespeare plays - if not my favourite - since studying it at 6th form, the combination of one of my favourite actors in one of my favourite plays was irresistible.

I'm going to take a risk and and not start with a plot synopsis of "Much Ado About Nothing."  I'm assuming that my key readership are, like me, literary geeks who already know the plot and characters.  If anyone does need a reminder, they can find a plot synopsis here.  If you are lucky enough to be going to see this play, and don't want spoilers on how they interpret certain moments it would be as well to avoid this review for a while at least, as I am going to be quite specific about some matters of staging and interpretation.  As I am working on the assumption that the plot is commonly known, I am not worrying about plot spoilers.

I was looking forward to this production, although I will admit to some trepidation when I heard that it had been updated.  I do have a tendency to be quite traditional in my Shakespeare preferences, and I get worried when I hear a production has been updated.  There are some strange textual decisions and staging decisions made in this production - some work, some don't - but, largely, the updating of the action to 1980s Gibraltar is successful and not jarring.  The programme notes explain Gibraltar's military links and party reputation - which makes it an apt location for the returning heroes of Shakespeare's play to celebrate.  The modern timeframe allows for fun with costume - a masked party in which David Tennant is in 80s Madonna drag (for a very attractive man, he makes a rough looking woman) and a pig snout, and Catherine Tate as Beatrice is a Blues Brother - and props (David Tennant makes a grand entrance on a golf buggy).

This is probably the funniest production of "Much Ado" that I have seen, with a strong emphasis on physical comedy and slapstick.  I knew that David Tennant would be an excellent Benedick because one of the frequently listened to files on my ipod is the BBC recording of "Much Ado" in which he had already played the role.  He seems blessed with being able to do the comedy - which he seems to enjoy, particularly in the scene where he is in hiding to eavesdrop on Leonato, Claudio and Don Pedro and ends up covered in white paint - as well as portraying his earnest challenge to Claudio following Hero's "death."  He also has a very natural delivery of Shakespeare's lines, which looks effortless but I'm sure has taken years of hard work and experience.  I took longer to warm to Catherine Tate as Beatrice, but this is not surprising given the facts that I covet both the role of Beatrice and the person of David Tennant (I'm joking, Mark, I'm joking!).  Her delivery and inflection has echoes both of Donna Noble and the teenage girl character from her show, and this portrayal of Beatrice took me longer to accept - although it is testament to her skill and her chemistry with David as Benedick that accept it, I did.

However, this might be a very funny production, but I felt that it is less effective at portraying the darkness that emerges later in the play.  For me, this hinges on the scene in which Benedick declares himself to Beatrice and she challenges him to kill Claudio.  This might be one of the instances in which I have a clear idea of how I would play it, and in my mind the scene is more subdued and a more mature admission of love.  The staging and direction of this scene brings out more of the comedy - Benedick and Beatrice have more of a spark of teenage merriment and excitement at finding that the person you have had a crush on for ages fancies you as well.  This works well until the moment that Beatrice asks Benedick to "Kill Claudio," and then the shift in tone is too abrupt.  Their merriment at acknowledging love, charming and funny though it is, is awkwardly sandwiched between the disastrous aborted wedding and Beatrice's anger and desire for justice for her cousin.  Skilled though Catherine Tate is as an actress, I'm not sure that she quite succeeds with this difficult shift in tone.  I know from other things that I have seen her in that she can do pathos and be very moving, but somehow this moment misfires (for me, at least).

Some of the staging decisions are very effective.  One thing that I felt worked particularly well, and went some way to solving some of the problems with the play, was the staging of hen and stag nights prior to the non-wedding of Hero and Claudio.  While I love the Beatrice and Benedick dynamic (which I have already written a little about in The Long and the Short of it), I take some of the Hero/Claudio plot on sufferance.  I don't see how Claudio can mistake Margaret for Hero so readily - and in this production they have differing hair colour - and I don't understand why Margaret doesn't tell Borachio to bugger off when he is shagging her and shouting out Hero's name.  But this production goes some way to make this more credible by throwing alcohol into the fray.  Hero, as bride to be on a hen night, wears a veil.  This gets discarded during the revels, and Borachio picks this up and places it on the drunken Margaret, which makes her superficially recognisable as the putative bride and disguises her hair colour.  Margaret, being drunk, is more likely to go too far with Borachio and, at a stretch, is possibly too out of it to object to him shouting Hero's name in the throes of passion (hmm, still dubious).  Don John plies Claudio with drink while telling him of Hero's unfaithfulness which, in turn, makes his gullibility more possible because his judgment is impaired (and he still seems queasy, hungover, and maybe even still a bit drunk when he denounces Hero at the wedding).

Less convincing is the staging of Claudio's grief, and I don't think that this is the fault of Tom Bateman, who makes a decent job of playing what is, after all, quite a dull character (and he was on the same tube train, same carriage, as us after the play).  Claudio is required to play rock music on a ghettoblaster to Hero's bones, while bouncing off pillars and getting raving drunk swigging from a bottle.  He then gets out a gun and is about to shoot himself before being stayed by an apparition of Hero.  This very nearly makes the play into "Romeo and Juliet" - always be wary of taking advice from a Friar in a Shakespeare play - and seems gratuitous and incongruous.

There was one textual element in this version which, as a lover of the play, left me wondering if I was cracking up, or if maybe I didn't know the play as well as I thought I did.  This was the character of Innogen, Leonato's wife, and this bugged me so much that one of the first things that I did when I got home was google it.  I didn't remember that Leonato had a wife, and many of her lines I remembered as being spoken by Antonio.  I found entries that say that she is a ghost character, and a remnant from an earlier version of the script - so I assume from her presence and from occasional slight variations in wording that they have used an earlier variant of the play.  I don't quite understand why this choice has been made, as she adds nothing to the plot and, when Hero is denounced, sits in dumb shock with no lines at all instead of reacting to the slander of her daughter.  When she does show some gumption in standing up to Claudio and Don Pedro, it is with words more normally assigned to Antonio and I didn't feel that it added any extra significance that they came from Hero's mother.  However, this might just be a rant of mine and might not seem disconcerting to someone less familiar with the play.

Despite some of my caveats, David Tennant and Catherine Tate work well together and they make an entertaining, sparky pairing.  The rest of the cast, many of whom I had not heard of before, were also excellent and I didn't feel that there was a weak performance in the show.  Particularly outstanding also were the Dons.  Adam James as Don Pedro (another recognisable face to me, as he has been in the "Doctor Who" episode "Planet of the Dead" and an episode of "Hustle," amongst other things), had a strong stage presence that might have made him a credible lover for Beatrice had Benedick not been in contention.  In all honesty he is not an actor who had previously made a big impression on me in his television performances but, having seen what he can do on stage, I am now more inclined to take note of his future projects.  Elliot Levey played the villain, Don John, like an evil Kenneth Williams via Michael Sheen, and made his machinations credible as a man who seems uncomfortable in his own skin.  Far from being a dominant manipulator, his henchmen, Borachio and Conrade, seem more in control and even rather dismissive of his villainy.  Even Mike Grady and John Ramm as Dogberry and Verges, normally very unfunny and often irritating characters as Shakespeare's now archaic malapropisms have not aged well, succeed in being funny.

This feelgood production ends with a dance that closes the production on a high.  I loved the show, and I was very glad that I had the chance to see one of my favourite actors on stage (we were only 6 rows back in the stalls, so I have been within a few metres of David Tennant and still don't have a restraining order) and I will be joining the petition to have it released on DVD because I would love to have that record of seeing the production.  But I can't deny that I miss the bit of darkness that a great production of "Much Ado" should have as a counterpoint to the humour.  The play is shadowed by the overhanging prospect of Don John's punishment, deferred in favour of wedding revelry.  Like "Twelfth Night" with Malvolio's threats of revenge, it shouldn't unequivocally have a feelgood ending; instead it should have a feelslightlyuneasy ending.  However, as the audience gave the production a standing ovation, I might be alone in wanting it to be a little less feelgood.....


  1. I really enjoyed it, having not seen the play before (yes I know I'm a heathen) I loved every moment of it.

    The highlights for me were SPOILER ALERT! when DT makes his exit in the golf buggy and has to keep cutting short his dialogue as the buggy makes a beeping noise when in reverse gear.

    And the business with the paint was very good. I didn't have any problems with the dialogue, which still works well in the 21st century.

    I would recommend this to anyone, be they a Shakespeare expert or a total novice.

  2. I have to say that I struggle to watch any interpretation of that play after seeing the movie by Kenneth Branagh which had me and my sister doing the "If I were as tedious as a King I would bestow all my tediousness on you sir." line at each other as often as possible.

    That version is so stuck in my head that I can't get it out. Whereas the Christmas showing of David Tennet's Hamlet helped me understand the play for the first time.