The war is over. Pedro Prince of Aragon, with his followers Benedick and Claudio, visits Leonato, Duke of Messina, father of Hero and uncle of Beatrice. Claudio falls in love with Hero and their marriage is agreed upon. Beatrice and Benedick despise love and engage in comic banter. The others plot to make them fall in love with each other, by a trick in which Benedick will overhear his friends talking of Beatrice's supposed secret love for him, and vice versa. Meanwhile Don John, the prince's misanthropic illegitimate brother, contrives a more malicious plot with the assistance of his follower Borachio: Claudio is led to believe that he has witnessed Hero in a compromising situation on the night before her wedding day – in fact it is her maid Margaret with Borachio. Claudio denounces Hero during the marriage ceremony. She faints and on the advice of the Friar, who is convinced of her innocence, Leonato announces that she is dead. Beatrice demands that Benedick should kill Claudio. The foolish constable Dogberry and his watchmen overhear Borachio boasting of his exploit and the plot is exposed. Claudio promises to make amends to Leonato: he is required to marry a cousin of Hero's in her place. When unmasked, she is revealed as Hero. Beatrice agrees to marry Benedick.
I’ve seen a couple of bad productions of this – one so bad that I actually walked out during the interval, and a severely lacklustre production reviewed earlier on this blog. So it was nice to see this version in good hands – Zoe Wannamaker can do no wrong in my book and, although I’m not really that fussed about Simon Russell Beale (I find the way he constantly spits at people during his dialogue rather icky) I come down from my lofty ivory tower for a moment to admit that he’s half-decent if you catch him in the right thing. I did initially worry that both of them were... shall I say... rather too mature to be playing Beatrice and Benedick - but then, of course, if you actually listen to the words, the reasoning becomes obvious. These two have a Past - they've tangled in love with each other before, been hurt and retreated and are now taking refuge from the lists of love. In this production, Beatrice is seeking solace in the bottle, and Benedick in pretend bluster. But they both come to realise that they are staring into the abyss of lonely old age and that the person they have been waiting for to deliver a emotional rescue has been under their noses all along…..all credit to both of them for excellent performances throughout. I did think it rather pushing the envelope of credibility that Beatrice’s cold (caught after an unscheduled dip in the pond) and which was made rather a lot of, seemed to have completely disappeared by the wedding (in terms of the play, only a few hours later).
This is possibly Shakey’s sunniest play – it portrays a leisured, happy world where the next meal is only ever a couple of hours away, and until then there is time to sit in the shade with friends, drink wine and indulge in wordplay or just listen to the crickets sing. This was nicely portrayed by the set, which showed a back wall of slightly crumbly plaster, pierced by shuttered windows and iron balconies. Centre stage was a rather odd loggia on a broadly cruciform pattern, giving pathways and little nooks as well as larger, more public spaces, and this was nicely used for the most part, giving plenty of opportunity for all the overhearing (yet remaining visible to the audience) required by the plot. Leonarto’s garden is mentioned as a place “Where honeysuckles, ripened by the sun,/ Forbid the sun to enter, like favorites,/ Made proud by princes, that advance their pride” and it would have been nice to have had this hinted at by the set – but it was greenery-free. There could have been a stunning bouganvelia – or indeed honeysuckle - growing up the loggia but nary a one was there. In fact, the sense of smell was the only sense left unstimulated by this production – it needed the smell of plants like rosemary baking in the sun or the hot, scorched smell of late afternoon, or a waft of cooking from the kitchen. Maybe they could have put something in the airconditioning? Just a thought.
I did feel that the dark side of the play was subservient to the sunny side – there seemed to be far more emphasis on the latter. In fact, it felt like the director could have really cut all that silly business about Hero and Claudio and just gone straight for the comedy. At a remove of time (I’m a bit behind in my reviews!) I find that the happy side of the play is really all I can recall and that the darker side made very little impression. However, I do remember all that silly stuff with the Watch (Dogberry and Verges et al) which I rate as Shakespeare’s most unfunny comedy. He could never really write good comedy, I think, and this is some of his most laboured. It didn’t really help that Mark Addy (the fat guy from The Full Monty) didn’t really seem up to the role of Dogberry (I know its difficult being a Shakespeare “Clown” so you need a really good actor to pull it off) and Trevor Peacock was, frankly, naff as Verges. A couple of times he wandered from the text and I just got the impression that the whole audience was just waiting for his Vicar of Dibley “No, no, no, no, no….yes” routine. A missed opportunity for an (OK, admittedly cheap) laugh.
Costumes were nicely rustic yet non-period specific, again reinforcing the impression of a land where time stands still and each day is much like the last – long, faded skirts, straw hats, white shirts with dropped shoulders and floppy collars and so on. The music in the play was nicely thought out– the setting of “Sigh no more” was good and didn’t feel forced in unnaturally as it sometimes does. And it was really fab for the play to end with a rousing set of “play out” music from the onstage musicians – its rare that Shakespeare ends with the entire audience home clapping happily along in time with the band. I got the impression that everyone – cast and audience - had had a really good time. And how often do you get to say that about Shakespeare?