Much Ado About Nothing, Old Vic Theatre – When everything goes wrong

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It pains me to say this but this production of Much Ado is no comedy.  All the more surprising when directed by Mark Rylance who was Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe for 10 years and gave us the memorable Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron in the critically acclaimed Jerusalem.  Rylance was minded to cast Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones together when he saw them in Driving Miss Daisy in the West End.

Let me preface my remarks by stating categorically that I have no issue with a production mixing British and American actors.   Sam Mendes managed this brilliantly with his Bridges Project, a collaboration between the Old Vic and BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) which brought us six productions between 2009 and 2011.  In this case, however, the result is less than satisfying.

Unless you have studied Much Ado at school, you would be hard pressed to understand what is happening on stage.   James Earl Jones has brought us some memorable characters throughout his acting career but this Benedick is not among them.  I could not understand him and many of his compatriots during the performance I saw.  Mr Jones’s elocution was a big problem but so too were his pauses and repetitions.  His voice is as deep as ever and the warmth of his personality shone through but I just couldn’t make the leap to reluctant lover.  Redgrave’s voice on the other hand projected much better but even she couldn’t save the evening.

James Earl Jones as Benedick and Vanessa Redgrave as Beatrice

James Earl Jones as Benedick and Vanessa Redgrave as Beatrice

Rylance decided to set the play in a rural English village circa 1944 but for some reason the set design (by Ultz) is more reminiscent of an installation at Tate Modern.  Why force the actors to move around a large wooden arch structure that appears to be a table made for a giant is anyone’s guess.   At one point, the giant arch was even draped in what appeared to be a black table cloth which made me think of school productions.  To add insult to injury, the costumes are truly unattractive.  Jones is trussed up into a khaki mechanics’ onesie while for Redgrave it’s all the way downhill after her initial beautiful appearance in tweeds, rifle and a brace of rabbits.  I don’t usually remark on the lighting but let me assure you that I was glad not to be sitting in one of the side balconies.  For some inexplicable reason these seats were drenched in stage light throughout, forcing the audience members, on the night I was there, to shield their faces from the spotlights using their programmes.

While I am delighted to see such mature actors on stage it’s another thing to see them play two reluctant lovers of childbearing age.  It also creates added confusion when cousins and nieces are old age pensioners.  Inevitably, the age-blindness casting impacts on the wit and lightness that we expect.

Having just performed a delightfully funny Viola in Twelfth Night and the main role in Richard III in the West End, it is difficult to understand how Rylance could have conceived that the current incarnation of this production would enchant any audience.  Let’s hope his next theatrical pursuit brings us a more enjoyable evening.

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