Reviews West End & Central Published 26 September 2013

Much Ado About Nothing

Old Vic ⋄ 7th September 23rd November 2013

Lethargy and incoherence.

Devawn Wilkinson

If its title didn’t advertise so much ado, then perhaps Mark Rylance’s Much Ado About Nothing would disappoint less. For the most part, this remote and unremarkable production lacks so much of the necessary comic furore it’s as if the main action is always taking place somewhere off-stage until all we’re left with is the nudge-wink asides and reaction faces – the lightest of familiar, farcical Shakespearian bungling that very often just feels bungled.

At its best – and despite unforgivably slow-going sections, there are moments of near-pleasure – it’s Shakespeare unpretentiously and unrepentantly pared back, Shakespeare at its most humble, played out like a sentimental and slightly cheeky domestic drama for the visible delight of the performers, if not the audience. But it’s also a production that, in resisting the extreme, absurd or the grandiose, seems to resist all the potential vivacity, poignancy and crucial universality of Shakespearean comedy. What it does offer is simply underpowered, often insensible and almost cruel in what feels like Rylance’s refusal to properly reward us for our attention.

Though set in 1940s England, with the victorious returning soldiers reconfigured as pilot GIs from a nearby American airfield, this relocation seems little more than a cursory touch as any sense of wartime anxiety or bravado is notably absent. James Earl Jones’ Benedick is a respected, ageing captain whilst Vanessa Redgrave’s Beatrice is a go-getting bachelorette with her hair elegantly arranged into two tiny devil horns. Though there’s undoubtedly something effortlessly magnetic about Redgrave, she too is eventually subdued by the lethargy that seems to overcome the entire cast. Her Beatrice can be rewardingly razor sharp when given the chance and it’s a shame, then, that Rylance so often kits her out in hunting gear or with guns – at one point, she walks in wiping a bloodied knife on her apron – as if there’s no faith that the text alone could convince us she’s enough of a match for the military men around her.

James Earl Jones is a robust and genial presence with a certain, lingering charm but his Benedick is painfully, bafflingly half-hearted. In the longer speeches, he seems content to simply get them over with and much of the crucial comedy is lost in his galloping approach to verse which more-often-than-not renders it entirely unintelligible.

He and Redgrave are quite marvellously relaxed on stage together, (partway through a speech, Jones’ moustache falls off – he glances at it then puts it into his pocket as if it belonged there) but any sense of tension, sexual or romantic, is replaced by gentle pot-shots and teasing camaraderie. Shakespeare gives us the hint that Benedick and Beatrice have had a prior entanglement, but in Rylance’s production, they’re a pair of amicable divorcees whose dramatics have waned significantly over time – their exchanges are not passionate enough to be the beguiling bond of loving hatred – the fail-safe basis of many a rom-com since the genre began – that should serve as the play’s main draw.

With the central romance so halting and unheated, there’s little else to capture our interest other than a respite from tedium by way of the criminally underused villains. Danny Lee Wynter’s Don John is a truly venomous creature, his scarred face near paralysed with loathing, voice so tense and slowed that it’s as if he finds even speaking painful, like the words are melting metal in his mouth. Kingsley Ben-Adir’s drawling Southerner, the cunning, gum-chewing Borachio is somehow alluringly soulless and soulful all at once, providing the highlight of the play – a harmonica-led version of Sigh No More which perfectly translates the plight of women into a bluesy lament that could easily have been originated by Bessie Smith.

Disappointingly, the sub-plot between Carlo and Hero is treated as a purely functional device, as filler or mere distraction until it seems quite apparent that Rylance himself is disinterested in it. Hero and Claudio (Beth Cooke and Lloyd Everitt) are forced to give markedly perfunctory performances, no more or less than the usual ciphers that Shakespearean lovers always threaten to become. The wedding scene where the men mercilessly shame Hero for her fictionalised promiscuity almost manages to hit a nerve, and perhaps if the constrictive social mores of 1940s England had been foregrounded, this may well have been devastating. Instead, it’s merely makes for grim, almost offensive viewing when father Leonato turns inexplicably, unconvincingly tyrannous and wishes death upon his daughter.

The usually impeccable Ultz adds to the incoherency with a truly bizarre set which trapped the action inside a sort of antique cabinet. The sturdy wooden box-like arch that dominates the stage – seemingly there to allow for all the hiding behind arrases – disrupts the space so completely that the characters are all but kettled in, all attempts at projection distorted into indiscernible resonating echoes.

The house lights stay up throughout – ostensibly to involve us in the action, but it only adds to the sense that the real show never quite begins. We’re helplessly cast adrift from this world, partly because it isn’t a fully-fledged world in itself. There’s a moment right at the finale where Earl Jones simply abandons his speech – the cast pause and wait, Redgrave embraces him, another actor pats on the back. Yes, it’s strangely endearing, but above all, hugely and discomfortingly alienating. Joyous irreverence may have been the aim here, but any playfulness can’t help but become punishment when Much Ado’s irreverence so often descends into utter disregard for the text and, more unforgivably, the audience.

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Devawn Wilkinson

Devawn is a London-based writer and performance poet. As a reviewer, she also writes for A Younger Theatre and formed part of their Edinburgh Young Critics team in 2012 and 2013. She performs her poetry at various events around London, and her work also is included in Things That Have Happened, an anthology of short stories from new young writers, published by Treehouse Press.

Much Ado About Nothing Show Info


Directed by Mark Rylance

Cast includes James Earl Jones, Vanessa Redgrave, Tim Barlow, Penelope Beaumont, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Katherine Carlton, Beth Cooke, Alan David, Michael Elwyn, Lloyd Everitt

Link http://www.oldvictheatre.com/

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