Though the Globe production of Much Ado About Nothing has drawn its fair share of deserved plaudits, it was always in danger of being eclipsed by the Tennant/Tate version of the same play. But while there are many who will be coming to see the Doctor and Donna together on stage, Josie Rourke’s production is a joyful thing, easily one of the funniest and most exciting productions in the West End.
More than just being an exercise in ‘star casting’, David Tennant is, as has been repeatedly pointed out, an experienced Shakespearean actor, and it shows: his is a masterful and sure-footed performance. He delivers his lines with a brilliant sense of timing and just the right amount of emotion (and, delightfully, in his native Scottish accent). He’s a tremendously physical actor, and uses his lean, lanky frame to great effect, all emphatic gestures and expressive body language – the scene in which he ‘overhears’ that Beatrice is in love with him are wonderfully well executed and leave the audience almost breathless with laughter. The broad comedic strokes he was sometimes criticised for in his Doctor Who days play perfectly here, so that even up if you’re sat up in the cheap seats you don’t miss a thing.
He is equally convincing when things take their inevitably darker turn: again, fans of Tennant’s Doctor will be familiar with his ability to play the joker with the core of steel, and he does so with aplomb. His body seems to close up, his gestures become more contained, and you are left in no doubt that beneath his facetious facade, Benedick is truly a soldier.
Tate also fares well, even though she is clearly less comfortable with some of the language. Her Beatrice is the first I’ve seen where ‘stroppy’ is as good a description as ‘sharp’, but it’s a splendidly gutsy and likeable performance. Like Tennant’s, it’s also a tremendously physical one – her ‘overhearing’ scene, too, is a standout, with her flailing, helplessly suspended above the stage. She may fall back too easily on the comedy tics that have served her so well in the past (you wouldn’t be overly surprised for her Beatrice to repel a suitor with ‘am I bovvered?’) but it doesn’t really matter, as it serves the show well.
The pair’s proven TV chemistry also translates effortlessly onto stage: from their first sparring, the pairing crackles with energy and sexual tension that no amount of pratfalls can diminish, so that when they finally kiss there is a real passion there, and a sense of true love fulfilled.
Inevitably, given the star wattage of the main pairing, the production focuses much of its attention on them, but there are solid performances throughout. That said, the secondary couple do struggle to hold your interest; Sarah MacRae makes a sweet if not particularly memorable Hero, and Tom Bateman manages to make the difficult-to-like Claudio more sympathetic than most. Jonathan Coy also impresses as Leonato, first raging against his daughter then against her accusers; while Adam James as Don Pedro and Elliott Levey as Don John are respectively suitably regal and reptilian. Special praise should go to John Ramm, who manages to make something amusing from the Dogberry scenes, instead of the excruciating interludes they so often are.
The team of director Josie Rourke, designer Robert Jones and musical director Michael Bruce should also to be applauded. The decision to stage the action in the 1980s may add little in terms of nuance, but it certainly works from a comedy perspective: from the sartorial horrors of an 80s hen night to the ‘tribute to Princess Diana’ wedding dress, the clothes frequently had the audience laughing even before the actors had opened their mouths, and the decision to transform the often difficult songs into dance numbers, all 80s power chords and electronica, was simply inspired.