Nicholas Hytner's new production of Much Ado About Nothing
boasts two star names - to most people he's an unknown but in the West End (and, apparently, on Broadway) Simon Russell Beale is pretty much royalty. Zoë Wanamaker on the other hand is another theatre veteran, but is best-known as the star of the inexplicably popular sitcom My Family
. So to start with at least, it was apparent that the audience was split into two existing fanbases, ready to laugh at the slightest gesture from their favourite. Happily their Benedick and Beatrice spark off each other so well that pretty soon the entire audience was loving both their performances. At the interval I asked Mum (who was looking forward to seeing Russell Beale but not Wanamaker) if her performance had changed her mind, and she said it had. Vicki Mortimer's design conjures up a fresh, bright Sicily where you can almost feel the heat, and overall it's a lively production.Much Ado
is a bit of a weird one, in that the B-plot of Benedick and Beatrice is so much more popular than the A-story, even with Shakespeare himself who gives it a lot of time. As such the main plot of a fledgling romance being sabotaged by the evil Don John feels overshadowed. Compulsory totty-watch time:
Can we say "smouldering?" That'll be Daniel Hawksford as Claudio (another bloody Daniel!) who does well with a tricky part - it's hard to know where to stand on a character who is portrayed as a classic Shakespearean young lover, but does something appalling to Hero and is only repentant when he finds out he was tricked. But Hawksford gives a strong performance, and while you can't really sympathise with him, you do feel like you know where his character stands - in that marrying someone you've just met is probably not a great idea. Back in shallow-land, he sadly doesn't take his top off, but a loose sackcloth shirt in the mourning scene suggests it would be a good idea if he did. I hope we don't have another George Rainsford
on our hands, all tease and no topless...
Susannah Fielding as Hero is OK, but doesn't really put her stamp on things. Andrew Woodall's cold Don John is a weird one - his performance seemed to be doing all the right things but I couldn't engage with it for some reason. Julian Wadham as Don Pedro and Oliver Ford Davies as Leonato give strong support though, especially in the scenes where they trick Benedick. As for the C-plot, big names have been brought in there as well - Mark Addy is great as Dogberry, full of pomposity and malapropisms, and Trevor Peacock is funny as Verges, although he basically plays him as his character from The Vicar of Dibley
without the "no no no no"s.
But Much Ado
is really The Benedick and Beatrice Show and the leads don't disappoint. It's the story that inspired a thousand screwball "I hate you I hate you I hate you I love you" comedies and Hytner acknowledges this - the scenes of them desperately trying not to be caught eavesdropping are hilarious, and when a small swimming pool arrives on stage it's obviously only a matter of time before one or both of them falls in. (But come on, a swimming pool on stage and that's still not a good enough excuse for Daniel Hawksford to get his kit off? For shame!) Russell Beale shows why he's considered by many to be the greatest living stage actor, as even on the massive Olivier stage his tiniest gesture can bring the house down. Wanamaker's Beatrice is world-weary and bitchy but willing to soften at the hope that love might finally enter her life. The production strongly suggests that the two may have had a failed relationship in the past, and their dialogue sparks.
Hytner can't quite do away with the problem elements of the story, which is awkward in this sunny production, but for the most part this is a real hit, and some of the most clearly-spoken, accessible Shakespeare I've seen for some time. If proof was needed that the production's a success, we were worried on going in to see a large school party in the audience, but apart from laughter and applause not a peep was heard out of them.Much Ado About Nothing
by William Shakespeare is booking until the 29th of March at the National Theatre's Olivier stage.