December 16, 2007, by Peter Kirwan
Much Ado About Nothing (National Theatre) @ The Olivier
The National’s decision to put on a new Much Ado about Nothing as their main house show over the Christmas period seems to be a slightly odd one, coming so soon after Marianne Elliott’s hugely successful production for the RSC which is still garnering award nominations. Clearly, however, Nicholas Hytner felt there was still something to be drawn out of the play, and Simon Russell Beale and Zoe Wanamaker head up an impressive cast that also includes Oliver Ford Davies, Mark Addy and Trevor Peacock. Big names, a familiar play and the lavish resources of the Olivier stage- surely a hit in the making.
The initial response to the casting, at least in my case, was “Aren’t they a bit old?” However, Wanamaker in particular used her relative seniority to great advantage. This Beatrice was getting on in years, and seemed to be at a point where she was regretting the militant single-ness of her younger years. Her comments on her past with Benedick were laced with regret, of opportunities missed, and her wit was now a screen to mask her loneliness. Yet Wanamaker didn’t allow her character to descent into self-pity, only bringing these elements occasionally to the surface. Here, Beatrice lived for other people’s happiness and entertainment, revelling in the comedy she created and trying not to focus on her own situation.
Simon Russell Beale, last seen by me on stage in Spamalot, was thoroughly entertaining as Benedick, using a similar mixture of bemusement and knowing charm to that which worked so well for him as King Arthur. His performance was genial, his insults mostly coming across as playful rather than cruel. He particularly shone in the ever-funny overhearing scene, hiding behind the slatted walls of the set to listen in. Teetering around a pool as he tried to hide, it seemed inevitable that he would eventually fall in, yet continually avoided it. The three gentlemen eventually left, leaving him free to come out into the open. Suddenly, however, they returned from separate angles, leaving him with no choice but to deliberately and spectacularly dive-bomb into the pool, slowly peeking his head across to wince at the audience while the conspirators laughed at him. Yes, it was easy, yes, it was obvious, yes, it was milked for all it was worth, but that didn’t stop it being absolutely hysterical. Topping it off by leaning seductively, yet still dripping, against a wall while Beatrice stared at him in disbelief, Russell Beale confirmed that he has a full grasp of comic timing.
Having seen several touring productions, I get frustrated sometimes at what I consider to be the unnecessarily cluttered stages of the National’s productions. I felt the same at first about Vicki Mortimer’s set for this production, a huge piece of decking split by slatted wood into four major sections and external areas, which revolved continuously. It seemed too much, but Hytner utilised it to great effect, particularly as the characters walked through rooms, the stage revolving to keep track of them while other business and scene-changes were conducted in the now-hidden areas. It was fussy, but gave an impression of fluidity and also of activity. The large cast had plenty of extras, meaning that servants were generally bustling about, allowing the preparations leading up to the wedding to be hinted at. The atmosphere of Messina was well-evoked, a balmy warmth bathing the action, and the revolving stage allowed for great contrast in the evening between the brightly lit masque outside and the shadowy decking outside where Don John conducted his business.
The darker elements of the play were given plenty of weight, and the wedding scene was well-pitched, edgy rather than hysterical. Oliver Ford Davies shone as Leonato, with good support from John Burgess’ Antonio who challenged Claudio by bringing in an enormous sword, as big as himself. Claudio and Hero’s individual performances didn’t particularly stand out, but their story worked well: it was played straight and both were believable in their responses to each other. Typically, it was again Wanamaker and Russell Beale who shone here- she distraught at her cousin’s fate, having invested so much in it herself in her bid to ignore her own situation, and he hesitant and divided, unsure of whether to follow his prince as he stormed out or to stay and comfort the woman he loved.
The other pleasant surprise was in Dogberry and Verges, played by Mark Addy and Trevor Peacock. Addy’s Dogberry was the straightest version of the character I’ve ever seen- the malapropisms and pomposity were present and correct, but the comedy was efficient, quick and effective rather than dragged out to agonising lengths as can sometimes happen. As a result, the Watch scenes were actually amusing, and Peacock’s bumbling performance also worked well.
The result was solid enough, if not life-changing. It’s the most money I’ve spent on a theatre ticket all year, and I was rewarded with an enjoyable Much Ado that played it safe. It won’t be remembered, but as a fun evening out it hit the mark.