“Man is a giddy thing and that is my conclusion”
Marking Josie Rourke’s first major piece of work since the announcement of her appointment as the next Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse, this production of Much Ado About Nothing is perhaps more notable, for those less interested in theatrical musical chairs, for reuniting David Tennant and Catherine Tate, one of my all-time favourite pairings from Doctor Who. It is actually the first time I’ve seen the play, though I adored the Kenneth Branagh/Emma Thompson film when I was younger, and fans of this play are being spoiled as the Globe are also mounting a production which opens in the coming weeks.
The play has been moved to the heady days of the early 1980s and apparently is set in Gibraltar. I say apparently because the first I heard of it was reading the programme on the way home in which there’s an essay about life there which I assume means it serves as the location. I didn’t see any monkeys or a big rock, but I suppose it allows for the military base to be used as a reason for putting all of Don Pedro’s men in spiffing white naval uniforms 😉 (At least I think they’re naval, military of some description anyway.)
As the warring couple Benedick and Beatrice, Tennant and Tate were really good fun both to watch and to listen to as they sparred and sparked off each other. Their respective gulling scenes are just fantastically played, his perhaps getting the edge for reasons that will become clear when you see it and they are clearly so well connected in terms of their performance that it is just a joy to watch them. Rourke has a keen sense of positioning them which means they are often directly opposed on the stage, even as a scene plays around them and there’s a ton of neat wordless moments, full of emotion as events threaten to thwart their story before it has even begun and even if you think you have an issue with them as a romantic pairing, their relationship is so strong that it is abundantly clear they belong together in one form or another. They are complemented beautifully by a stellar performance from Adam James as a strong Don Pedro, offering comic interventions and emotional support, even though sometime misguided, to all and sundry with a great stage presence and ease of manner.
Looking back, I did find it a little odd that it is Tennant who gets most of the comic devices – the golf buggy and the keyboard coming first to mind, whereas Tate is usually to be found drinking in dungarees. I don’t think I’m wrong in thinking the dice are more heavily loaded towards him and it did generally feel like he was being presented more as the star rather than as half of a partnership (but then I need to reacquaint myself with the play and see if Beatrice is actually written as much as an equal as my hazy memory recalls Thompson being).
Sarah Macrae must be blessing the day she met Josie Rourke: after getting her professional stage debut at the National in Men Should Weep, her second role sees her West End debut as a fairly feisty Hero, a spirited interpretation for the most part though it did feel like she was a little too keen to fall so readily back into Claudio’s arms after the big reveal at the end – Beatrice’s women’s lib lessons evidently not making too much impact! But Rourke clearly is interested in giving new talent a shot as her Claudio, Tom Bateman, is another performer making a professional stage debut and he does extremely well. Perhaps a little over-earnest in showing his later anguish but then one is tempted to forgive a little overcompensation here after following Shakespeare’s difficult honour-driven machinations which require him to believe his (disliked) colleague over his betrothed. Still, they make an appealing couple and I also liked Alex Beckett’s wild-haired Borachio, Elliot Levey’s scowling as Don John – although it is a shame he doesn’t have more to do – and Jonathan Coy’s impassioned Leonato.
We were sat in the centre of the very back row of the balcony and for the cheap seats, I have to say I was very impressed. The Wyndhams is a lovely small theatre anyway so one is not too far away even at the back but the rake is so well-designed that it barely feels like there’s rows of people in front of you, our sightlines were basically unimpeded and free from that annoying things of people in front shifting in their seats and blocking your view. Projection wasn’t a problem and as for the sound, Michael Bruce’s music is interestingly done as it is a heavily 80s inspired soundtrack, to the point where he has written songs that sound just like, but not quite, several well known tunes. It is clever but I’m not 100% sure that I saw the reason for it. Robert Jones’ design is exquisite though, with four pillars mounted and set back on a revolve which dominates the stage and neatly suggests a more technologically advanced Globe: this tribute to that venue is also nodded at with a final jig (of sorts).
The show is remarkably good shape for an early preview, most everyone is secure in their verse-speaking, it is just a case of cranking up the energy levels here and there and introducing a little more distinction into someone of the minor parts, but there was little I could criticise in the final analysis. There were a few many wordless scenes as the stage made its stately progress round and round, the fevered dream sequence unnecessarily pushed Claudio’s depth of despair too far and I’m not sure I would have put the interval where it is, the show breaks with a very strange image which dissipates the intense atmosphere generated, where stopping just one scene before would have a much greater emotional impact.
Where criticism does come in, is for the mean-spirited decision to make the ticket lottery (20 best seats being released each day and a lottery drawn at 10.30am) one ticket per winner, thereby making something that is already a gamble doubly so, as if two of you want to go, one could win and the other not. It is hard not to find this a cynical move on the part of the production company, I’m not sure how I feel about lotteries anyway, but to make it impossible to plan a social evening to the theatre with it feels wrong.Fans of David Tennant won’t be disappointed here (especially if you dream of seeing him in drag), fans of Catherine Tate might be a little bit by comparison, but altogether they combine to headline a strong production of this play which has much to commend it, not least their unique chemistry is which is played to perfection here, the more general great spirited energy from the whole team and of course, men in uniform. It will be interesting to see how it compares with the Globe’s version especially as I’m not too familiar with the play itself but it is also interesting to see Rourke working on this scale again and try and work out if there are any clues here as what her stewardship of the Donmar might offer.