12 December 2006

Much Ado About Nothing – Novello Theatre Friday 8th December 2006

I think I once read a book called “The Land of Lost Opportunity”. This production could have been wonderful, but was completely botched by the director and cast, and I don’t recall ever being quite so unmoved by a production of a Shakespeare play (although I have walked out of a couple).

Casting was pretty dire. I thought Tamsin Craig made a good effort (for a non-Shakespearian actress) at Beatrice (she was apparently cast because of her “comedy actress” status) but she obviously couldn’t make up her mind whether she was playing it as Holly Golightly or Rizzo from “Grease”. Putting her in shades for her first scene really didn’t help the character establish herself – much of this first scene (the “baiting” of Benedick) should be played with the eyes as well as the dialogue. Morven Christie was DIRE as Hero – both her diction and projection were appalling and most of her dialogue was either inaudible, incomprehensible or both as a result. Heck – she’s playing Juliet later in the season – there’s one to miss if you can. Adam Rayner was similarly dire as Claudio – no passion, no courtliness and no perceptible passage of thought behind the eyes. OK, Claudio is one of those dreadful “Ferdinand” roles (the kind which, in opera or operetta would be played by the principal tenor) in which little is really required other than the ability to deliver the lines correctly and look pretty. The role is a mould, and it would have been good to see an actor break out of it! The singer Yvette Rochester-Dougan made an unlikely Balthasar and I can’t really say that the setting of “Sigh no more, Ladies” passed any kind of muster. OK, you force me – it was grim. And, for a production set in Cuba (nice opportunity for the RSC to showcase some of its ethnic actors), why were she and Don Pedro the only non-white inhabitants? Or were we supposed to assume that Leonardo and all his family were members of the colonial elite? Even the members of the local Watch were white to a man.

Which brings me nicely on to Bette Bourne, who struggled with what is probably Shakey’s unfunniest “comedy” role. I’ve often sat and watched some poor bastard playing Dogberry desperately flogging his lines in order to try and raise a laugh, and even an actor of Bourne’s calibre made it very heavy going. It must be very trying for gay actors to be constantly given gay roles (poor James Dreyfuss, for instance) but Bourne would have been far funnier and far more watchable if the director had decided whether he should play the role as Arthur or Martha. In this case, Martha would have been funnier – Bourne is a master of camp timing and comic putdowns – but Bourne inhabited this “on the fence” role very uneasily. Sexuality wasn’t explicit, but there was a suggestion of a relationship with Verges and some vague caressing of the Muscle Boy Watch Member – so, was he or wasn’t he? It would have been fun to see Dogberry being true to himself amidst all the macho posturing by the other male characters – this is, after all, a play about facades and masks, some of which we use in order to hide from others, some of which we use in order to hide from ourselves.

The only real acting credits go to Jonny Weir in the thankless role of Don John. This character is a minor one and it is never adequately explained why he does what he does (he’s just “All purpose evil Shakespearean disaffected with his lot in life and therefore out to get revenge on absolutely anyone who appears vaguely happy” I suppose). But at least you could hear what he was saying. With such a good voice, why wasn’t he playing Benedick?

Ah, Benedick. Sorry, but Branagh was much better (but Joseph Wilson did look shaggable wearing that beard).

The one set (a “Messinan/Cuban Courtyard”) looked pretty enough to begin with but became rather tiring when used for the entire production without change. Very little, if any use was made of the balcony which was a shame as there might well have been some good comic possibilities in using it. Good use was made of the Vespa – but a) why were its wheels mounted on boxes and b) why on earth was it on the set for the entirety of the first half? Could not one of the characters have arrived on it, parked it and then perhaps driven off on it again? And that bloody potted plant – surely the director could have come up with some better way of having Benedick eavesdrop in the garden scene? Behind you love! There’s a balcony! I saw the Renaissance Theatre Company do “Twelfth Night” once in which the “box tree” was a decorated Christmas tree. And the “hiding behind” this was just as contrived, stupid and irritating as in this production. OK, OK, suspension of disbelief is sometimes necessary, but this was just plain boring.

And what a strange ending! “Ado” is like “Dream” – needs ending with a good, jolly dance with which to shake away all the traces of the unpleasantness which has gone before. But in this production, the dance died away and Don Pedro was left marooned in a cold white spotlight. Bizarre. Points will be given to any of my readers able to explain this.

Actually, its just come to me that the story I referred to at the beginning is actually the title of a chapter in Agatha Christie’s autobiography and should be “The Land of Lost Content”. But this is still pertinent to this review, and in fact fits it rather better, because as I made my way home along a cold and windy Strand that evening, I was pretty discontent myself.

There are no actual deaths in “Ado”. The only death which occurred in this production was that of the production itself – a long, slow, painfully drawn out affair, which I observed taking place during 3¾ hours in an overheated theatre while watching second and third rate actors and a poor director murdering one of Shakepeare’s best loved plays.

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