01 February 2012

Much Ado About Nothing - via Digital Theatre, Monday 30th January 2012


David Tennant as Benedick
Catherine Tate as Beatrice
Tom Bateman as Claudio
Alex Beckett as Borachio
Joshua Berg as Titus
Jonathan Coy as Leonato
Anna Farnworth as Imogen
Mike Grady as Verges
Clive Hayward as Hugh Oatcake/Friar Francis
Derek Howard as Angelo
Kathryn Hunt as Ursula
Adam James as Don Pedro
Lee Knight as Conrade
Elliot Levey as Don John
Nicholas Lumley as George Seacole
Sarah MacRae as Hero
John Ramm as Dogberry
Enzo Squillino Junior as Balthasar/Sexton
Leo Staar as Messenger
Natalie Thomas as Margaret
Hannah Warren-Green as Maria

Creative Team
Author - William Shakespeare
Director - Josie Rourke
Producer - Sonia Friedman Productions

Having missed out in the general scramble to buy tickets for this production, I eventually managed to catch it via Digital Theatre, an –iPlayer type thingy via which you can watch recordings of live theatre performances. For anyone interested, you can rent or download several different productions. The choice is , at the moment, extremely limited and be warned that the bandwith speed of transmission is very high indeed – it does make for pin-sharp images but anything running on your PC in the background is likely to have a severe effect. In fact, for the first half, it was rather like watching Shakespeare as conceived by Harold Pinter – lots of pauses while the transmission caught up.

This was always going to be a critic-proof production given the starry leads, and I run the risk of attracting ire when I say that, because of this, it seemed s though Josie Rourke had decided to take The Bard down to the level of lowest common denominator – at times it really is “Shakespeare for Beginners” in that that there is little subtlety and the laughs are hammered home with incredible force. Unfortunately this seems to have affected the way in which at least some of the cast give their performances – so broad does the comedy get that at times it seemed in danger of falling off the ends of the screen. The delectable Mr. Tennant works hard at toning this down and subsequently comes off quite well – although he is nowhere near innocent – but Catherine Tate has a worrying tendency to go off the Richter Scale at times and give a performance of definite Panto Level. In the more serious scenes, particularly that after the aborted wedding of Claudio and Hero, however, she is far better, although never really gets to the heart of Beatrice, an intelligent woman who masks her pain with wit. Tate generally plays her as a drunken lad-ette, and indeed obviously lacks the stage experience to realise that recreating several of her comedy series characters and waving her hands about like a baboon on laughing gas is not what the part demands. However, it was obvious from the audience reaction that this is what was expected and wanted, and probably why many of them bought the tickets in the first place. If the population want bread and circuses, it seems folly to give them roses. The direction is often to blame – in the gulling scene, while Tennant has lots of good moments with a trolley full of paint cans, Tate gets the full Peter Pan treatment and spends most of the scene covered with a tarpaulin and being winched up and down on a cable. There’s nothing you an actor can do under these circumstances other than go for broke. 
The production is set firmly in the 1980s, as is evident from the Masquerade costumes – Tennant is dragged up to resemble Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan – although sports a strange Miss Piggy Snout for some reason. Adam Ant, SuperMario, Michael Jackson in Thriller mode and Princess Diana wedding dresses are much in evidence. There’s a lot of unnecessary business with a programmable Casio keyboard and a Rubik’s cube, the solving of which is presented to us at the end as a slightly heavy-handed metaphor for completion and the restoration of harmony. However, there are some interesting uses of the 80s motif which are very successful – the seduction of Margaret on which the plot turns is carried out in a laser-slashed nightclub and leads to a successful explanation of why Margaret doesn’t come forward and explain what has happened – having got slaughtered on alcopops she is taken away by the City Watch to sober up in a cell overnight. I doubt very much whether this subtlety is picked up on by the majority of the audience though. 
One huge mistake by the director is turning the role of Antonio, Leonato’s brother, into Imogen, Leonato’s wife (and thus Hero’s mother). This skews the balance of the household which should be without a female authority figure*, and there is a disastrous and arrogant interpolation of lines for Imogen which don’t appear in the text and which haven’t even been penned by Shakespeare. Rourke also allows Imogen to overhear the conversation in which Don John explains to his crony that he intends to cause mischief in the household by slandering Hero, a plot device which is again unpenned by Shakespeare and which has no rationale whatever. It seems to have been inserted merely to underline the fact that “something’s afoot” and makes no sense whatsoever in terms of what happens afterwards – if Hero’s mother is aware of the plot to discredit her daughter, it makes no sense that she remains silent when the wedding is aborted.
At times the direction is completely overwrought and heavy handed, although the use of the revolving stage is exploited to extremely good effect during the gulling of Benedict – it does away with much of the “popping out from behind scenery to deliver lines” while the other characters set up the situation and which often makes this scene an intense strain on the credibility. The gulling of Beatrice, as mentioned above, is disastrously overdone. Given the presence on the stage of painters (to allow for the presence of the paint cans and the cable), Rourke could easily and logically have had Beatrice disguise herself as one of the painting crew and thus be “hidden in full sight”. Claudio’s attempt at suicide at Hero’s supposed tomb is completely unnecessary given that he has, five minutes previously, vowed to mourn there yearly to expiate his guilt.
The scenes involving the City Watch, always a problem, are laboured and heavily cut, making them (if possible) even heavier going than usual, even though much of the tedious wordplay is jettisoned. John Ramm does his best with the practically impossible character of Dogberry, one of Shakespeare’s unfunniest clowns, and the rest of the Watch are immediately forgettable. Jonathan Coy gives a powerful stillness to the role of Leonato and Tom Bateman does his level best to make Claudio rise above total sickliness. Elliott Levy gives a fine performance and makes Don John into the type of man who makes your skin crawl.
Its all jolly good fun for the audience and far from being the worst production of this play that I’ve seen. But also far from the best – its unsubtle and heavy-handed and very much a star vehicle for Tennant and Tate, who are not entirely successful as old sparring partners giving grudgingly into their true feelings.

* (later) According to The Arden Shakespeare, the character of Imogen did actually make an appearance in the first published versions of the text.  However, she seems to have been quietly dropped by the 1780s, and I can find no references to any lines having actually been given to this character.