In keeping with 2011's theatrical theme of multiple productions of the same Shakespeare play, there's two competing Much Ados running all summer. First up for me is Josie Rourke's production at Wyndham's, the one people are referring to as "T&T" because it reunites former Doctor Who pairing David Tennant and Catherine Tate as Benedick and Beatrice, their first time on stage together. T&T as B&B have made this one of the biggest box office draws of the year and they don't disappoint, their chemistry translating onto the stage making for a giggly B&B, not quite believing that they're declaring their love for each other even as they do so.
Rourke has set her production in 1980s Gibraltar (although the location in Robert Jones' design of pillars and white blinds could be anywhere in the Mediterranean) and like most shows with a high concept this starts out rather overwhelming things but as the play goes on it settles down a bit more to its proper place in the background. The conceit does mean the show opens with cute Joshua Berg as the servant Titus, entering in shorts and an unbuttoned shirt, so I'm not going to complain. And although at times overused the '80s visuals often give an opportunity for good visual gags, like a fancy dress party where Benedick comes as Madonna and Beatrice as a Blues Brother, and a gag involving the extra-long train of Princess Diana's wedding dress. Michael Bruce's setting of Shakespeare's songs to a variety of '80s musical styles also works well. Being sold on the star names the production is, even more so than usual, built around their characters, meaning some of the other roles suffer. Elliot Levey has managed to escape the National Theatre (what with Adrian Scarborough in Betty Blue Eyes and now this, the NT's dungeonmaster has been a bit lax lately) but hardly registers as Don John. Perhaps acknowledging that the creation of Dogberry wasn't Shakespeare's finest hour, John Ramm barely seems to be projecting his voice in the role. Adam James fares better - Rourke has played up the suggestion that his Don Pedro is in fact himself in love with (and rejected by) Beatrice, and James quickly gained the sympathy of an audience very clearly there for T&T. Claudio is a deeply problematic character and Tom Bateman doesn't help matters with a performance lacking any shades of gray.
Most of the cast are solid though and, having run a new writing venue for the last few years, perhaps this is a sign of how Rourke will fare when she takes over the more classically-minded Donmar next year. If it's a sign of things to come there seems no need to worry. This was Andy's first Much Ado and he really enjoyed it, although he too was struck by how problematic a character Claudio is - the production neither softens his wild mood swings nor acknowledges that they put a dark shadow over the happy ending. For me, it was hard to entirely shake the memory of the SRB/Wanamaker pairing at the National a couple of years ago, and while this is a very funny production, that one was funnier. At one point it even seemed as if the director was very aware of that most recent London outing of the play: Almost as if acknowledging that having a swimming pool onstage for both B&B to fall into was going to be hard to beat, the "overheard" scenes feature a lot of elaborate slapstick. Perhaps remembering what happened the last time he headlined Shakespeare in the West End, Tennant's back is spared and it's Tate who gets the more acrobatic of these routines.
Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare is booking until the 3rd of September at Wyndham's Theatre.