Old Vic, London
21st September, 2013, matinee
In an interview with Mark Lawson at the Criterion Theatre, the incredible actor/ director Mark Rylance announced that he planned to do Much Ado About Nothing with Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones after seeing them on Broadway in Driving Miss Daisy. After much anticipation and press regarding their age, it opened last week at the Old Vic to mainly terrible reviews, perhaps leaving people wishing that he hadn’t suggested it. However, I say that some of the criticism was unfair and would recommend it for Redgrave’s and many of the supporting cast’s performances.
It is usually the case that Benedick and Beatrice are played by actors in their forties rather than their 70s (Redgrave) and 80s (Earl Jones). But the idea that you are never too old for love is true and at times it really doesn’t matter that these two reluctant and bantering lovers are pensioners. At other times though, it does make Rylance’s production a little senseless. Firstly, you wonder what this 82 year-old Benedick has been doing in the war to prove so helpful to Claudio. Also, when Leonato tells his niece Beatrice (who looks older than him) ‘By my troth, niece, thou wilt never get thee a husband if thou be so shrewd of thy tongue,’ (II.i) you can’t help but be a little surprised that they are still trying to find her one. But other than that, the age ‘matter’ doesn’t really get in the way.
Rylance’s concept works well and it helps to explain the casting: he transports Messina to a WWII English village with American troops visiting. Ultz’s design has said to be dull and not the most aesthetically exciting but it certainly is striking. From the second row of the stalls, you can see up into the well-lit brick fly tower, which further makes the design look more impressive. The design is largely wooden-looking with a giant inset box which some have said carries the look of a Wagamama’s table. I’m not sure if it helps the acoustics and it is pretty hard to analyse but it certainly provides shelter which is useful for scenes set in more private places and also sets up some hiding places. To be honest, it reminds me of what the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse might look like next year and the whole production certainly does have a Shakespeare’s Globe feel about it. The staging is mainly lively and open and the front few rows are lit to help protrude the performance space into the audience space.
I did wonder if the age of Redgrave and Earl Jones would stop the famously funny gulling scenes from being as active as major productions from recent years and I’m afraid they do come across as a little disappointing. Unlike some reviews, I can say that you can see some of Benedick’s and Beatrice’s reactions but for most of the scenes, they are either hiding in or behind a wagon. It does bring a moment of joy, however, when Redgrave leans forward and directly asks an audience member “if this is true?” and by not seeing their reactions, it does allow more focus to go on the other players who are excellent in these scenes.
A moment of delight in this production comes from the Dogberry/ Watchmen scenes. Peter Wight’s English Bobby Dogberry (with a touch of a Northern accent) is very funny and plays well off of Tim Barlow’s elderly Salvation Army officer Verges. His dance moves behind a Bluesy version of ‘Sign No More’ are eye-catchingly hilarious, if not a little milked. The other watchmen are played by children scouts and the scene where they catch Borachio in an apparently dark barn provide a moment of action equal to something you might see at Shakespeare’s Globe in the sense that it’s fun, spirited and induces a lively reaction from the audience. It is interesting that Dogberry doubles with the calm Friar Francis as both are characters who seek peace.
Vanessa Redgrave is on fine form! It was my first time seeing her on stage and I was surprised by how warm, rich and spirited her voice is. Her gesture to the sky on ‘but then there was a star danced, and under that I was born’ is magical and makes you aware that you are in the presence of a great (II.i). An extra layer of interest is added here because Redgrave’s birth was announced on the Old Vic stage after a performance of Hamlet.
James Earl Jones, sadly, lets the production down in my opinion. He has a great voice and his Benedick has charm but there are times when his diction is bad and I felt that his struggles with his lines got in the way of his character. Comparing him to many other (albeit younger) Benedicks, he is often sitting down which halts the pace and energy of the play. I could be wrong but one of his final speeches was got through with repeating bits and I don’t think that he carried on after “and that is my conclusion” even though there are other lines in the script.
An ironic edge is added to Benedick’s ‘the world must be peopled’ which is fine as it does receive a knowing laugh. Quentin Letts criticised the fact that Beatrice’s ‘Kill Claudio!’ got a laugh but that is not an uncommon reaction. Afterall, a laugh does relieve the tension that the severity of the line brings if put into reality.
Many of the supporting cast are excellent. Michael Elwyn (who didn’t have much stage time in The Audience) makes for an excellent Leonato. He spits with anger in the wedding scene as he chases Hero around the stage and carries a particularly powerful performance all the way through. It is a shame that Beth Cooke’s Hero and Lloyd Everitt’s Claudio neither particularly stand out but maybe the former does when being accused in the wedding scene and is being held by Redgrave. Melody Grove’s East London Margaret is extremely impressive as is Ben Kingsley-Adir’s Borachio. Alan David (of Jerusalem fame with Rylance) is excellent as is Danny Lee Wynter’s highly convincing Don John. He wears a scar on his left cheek as if to physically convey a bitterness and perhaps jealousy which reflects the character’s darker side. James Garnon’s masterful Don Pedro also impresses.
There seems to be a major production of Much Ado every couple of years or so, but maybe this ill-reviewed production will make producers wait a little while. I was a little disappointed that there was no symbolism about noting or things being resolved. Although it might seem a little contrived, the eventually-solved Rubik’s Cube at the end of Josie Rourke’s West End production was a neat touch. The Old Vic, its programmes and its front of house staff were as friendly and beautiful as ever.
I suppose it is a good thing that someone can suggest a play and an interesting cast choice and then for it to happen, but maybe in this case it shouldn’t have done (some might say). However, for £14 for the second row of the stalls, I can’t really complain. At times, this production seems a little messy, but Redgrave makes it very special as do many other members of the cast. As long as you’re not paying top dollar for it, I reckon that in some way or other, it is a must see.
Much Ado About Nothing runs at the Old Vic Theatre until 30th November, 2013.