Much Ado about Nothing

Yesterday I was lucky enough to see a new production of Much Ado at Wyndham’s theatre on Charing Cross Road. It is one of two productions of the play on stage in London (the other is currently on at The Globe). The Wyndham production pairs Dr Who star David Tennant with comic actress Catherine Tate as the bickering couple Benedick and Beatrice. Several critics have dismissed the production as populist, clearing preferring the more traditional production at The Globe which I have not yet seen.

In my view Wyndham’s theatre production offers much for a modern audience to enjoy. The setting for example, Gibraltar in the 1980s, is inspired, since it lends the play a sexy, contemporary feel which helps to locate the audience within the action itself. So many productions of Shakespeare alienate the audience by attempting to recreate the authenticity of the Elizabethan theatre. For many who already find Shakespeare hard going, this can further distance them from what is happening on stage, thus reinforcing the perceived elitist theatricality of a Shakespeare production. In contrast, the Wyndham production, directed by Josie Rourke, invites the audience to participate, to become visitors to the island, to be part of the crowd.

The set too helps to draw the audience into the drama. A plain central circular rotating stage with four classical arches, backed by white washed shutters, reinforces the beach hut simplicity of the production. As the drama progresses we see a poolside hotel, a lobby, a nightclub, a cafe, an office, and a church, all supported with cleverly interchangeable props. The costumes reinforce this relaxed inclusive environment. In the opening scene the cast flop about on sun loungers, smoking cigarettes in bikinis and dungarees. David Tennant arrives on stage in a golf buggy, handing out beers with all the nonchalance on someone who’s just arrived from the airport duty-free. Even his starched white military uniform is slightly camp and witty, reminiscent of those uniforms worn by Wham in their Club Tropicana video.

The first half of the play is laugh-out-loud knockabout comedy. Beatrice and Benedick bicker, Hero and Claudio fall in love. Everyone gets drunk at a masked ball, including David Tennant, dressed in a denim mini skirt and red patent Doc Marten boots. Beatrice hides on stage under a dust sheet, Benedick sips from a can of coke containing cigarette ends and runs about in a Superman t-shirt. Even the villain Bastard plays it for laughs. The second half sobers up. If the first half of the play is the night before, the second half is the hangover. Everyone gets serious. Hero is supposedly dead, and Benedick shifts from clown to gentleman. As the action progresses the audience is forced to confront the dark side of the island. We see a funeral, Claudio’s desperate night of remorse, Borachio’s arrest and confession, and Leonato’s anger. But the humour and light touches don’t vanish. Rourke supports flashes of comedy; in Dogberry, in Benedick’s attempts at a love song, in the declarations of love between Benedick and Beatrice. But these don’t overshadow, rather they provide gentle light relief. And as the play draws to a close, the party atmosphere returns; the action ends with a traditional jig, played for laughs by the cast as they dance and sing to a pulsing Hey Nonny Nonny.

I’m conscious of the many Shakespeare purists squirming in their seats at the idea of sequinned dresses, disco beats, and cocktails. But it works. This production really works. It relocates Shakespeare in a contemporary world we can all relate to. It drags him from the clutching arms of elitists. This is a production everyone can enjoy. Children will enjoy the slapstick physical comedy, teenagers will enjoy the disco beats and cool relaxed atmosphere, and grown ups will enjoy the sparkling dialogue and clever staging. And this, at the end of the day, is what Shakespeare should be about. Productions should be fun, engaging, entertaining. Shakespeare wasn’t writing for grave academics in the universities and Inns of Court. He was writing for everyday Londoners. A trip to the theatre was open to anyone who had a penny in their pocket. In 1598-9 when Much Ado was likely first performed, its audience would have consisted of people from all walks of life, and Shakespeare’s task was to write a play which appealed to just such a wide cross-section. Some went for the jigs, some for the lovers, some for the songs. Others went to listen to the language. But what every single audience member wanted was the same thing: to be entertained.

So ignore the stuffy critics who dismiss Rourke’s production as ‘populist’. The audience may be full of children who all want to see Dr Who, but does that really matter? Surely the fact a Shakespeare production can not only draw in children, but actually make them laugh out loud, as I witnessed yesterday, is a very good thing indeed. This production is witty, sexy, and clever. Nothing is lost in the setting. The acting on the whole is superb; David Tennant is a delighful Benedick, and Catherine Tate a wonderfully contemporary Beatrice. Rourke’s production has everything a good Shakespeare production should have, but it excels where others fail, simply because the audience are invited guests rather than unwanted observers.

To overlook this production because it appeals to the masses does a huge disservice to Shakespeare. We need more productions like this. We need to stop revering Shakespeare and start enjoying him. In my view, this production helps to place Shakespeare firmly back where he belongs: at the very heart of popular culture.

The show runs until 3rd September.

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  • June 12, 2011 - 5:56 pm | Permalink

    Well I won’t have any hesitation in going to see this production next time we visit. Prevously it wasn’t on my radar. Thank you.

  • CeCe
    June 5, 2011 - 8:04 pm | Permalink

    Sorry but I can’t agree that “David Tennant is a delighful Benedick, and Catherine Tate a wonderfully contemporary Beatrice” I don’t have any problem whatsoever with contemporary sets etc but I DO have a problem with the lack of depth of the characters of Benedick & Beatrice. I have always thought that we should believe they do actually like each other, but just won’t admit it before finally succumbing. In this production, they gave the impression that they didn’t like each other at all & then suddenly do an about face upon overhearing their friends. I also found the self indulgent upstaging by “The Doctor & Donna” of the other actors irritating & insulting. A more ensemble approach to this production would have been preferable. Particularly disappointing as I think DT & CT are both fantastic actors capable of much more.

  • June 5, 2011 - 10:57 am | Permalink

    “If the first half of the play is the night before, the second half is the hangover.”

    A perfect description! I although thought this was an excellent production, one I’d like to see again. Although the piece as a whole was wonderful, David Tennant made it for me as a wonderfully sparkling, clowning, eager-to-entertain Benedick. Highly recommended: go and see if tickets are still available!

  • Anonymous
    June 5, 2011 - 10:26 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this. Makes me really want to go and see it. Perhaps I’ll get the chance.


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