“He hath borne himself beyond the promise of his age”
There was certainly a raised eyebrow or 3 when it was announced that the leads in Mark Rylance’s take on Much Ado About Nothing for the Old Vic would be Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones. Neither have previously taken on the roles of the warring Beatrice and Benedick and having worked together recently on Driving Miss Daisy (which others liked even if I didn’t), their’s is a pairing with history. But undoubted quality aside, it is a brave move to cast so daringly and with a production that relocates Shakespeare’s play to England in 1944.
Does it work? Making the Aragonese soldiers into a company of GIs has a visual impact that works well and turning Sigh No More into a bluesy harmonica-driven ditty is inspired. But putting Shakespeare’s language into the mouths of American soldiers doesn’t always work “my Lord…” and without wanting to open too far the can of worms that is the subject of race, I’m not so sure the lack of comment on a 1940s inter-racial marriage, never mind the issues of honour flung about later, really flies. Messina as the home front is neat though, making the Watch a Dad’s Army-style collection of ragbags and kids (including one called Beryl, maybe?).
First preview caveats apply but Rylance does seem to have employed a relatively light touch with his leads – James Earl Jones patently not up to speed yet as Benedick and so frequently feeling dangerously improvised and Vanessa Redgrave’s Beatrice full of subleties which need to be a little amplified so as not to come across as underpowered. Yet the possibilities for wonder rear their head even now, not least in a glorious reading of “What fire is in mine eyes…” as Beatrice reels from her gulling, where one genuinely feels the transformative power of love on the lonely. It’s a potent reminder of why she is the deservedly acclaimed actress she is.
Elsewhere the company feels like a mixed bag. James Garnon makes a splendid Don Pedro, his proposal of marriage carried off in a delightful way; Danny Lee Wynter’s Don John needing a tad more depth to display something more than petulance. Lloyd Everitt and Beth Cooke feel like they have the potential to make some affecting out of their unlikely lovers Claudio and Hero, Tim Barlow’s doddery Verges is fun and whilst I enjoy anything that brings more Peter Wight into my life, making him double as Dogberry and Friar Francis seems to make him work very hard in the second half.
I rather liked Ultz’s immobile square arch that dominates the stage, bringing a simplicity to much of the staging which is often dominated (assumedly necessarily) by chairs for people to actually sit in whilst talking. There’s an inexplicable directorial moment during the wedding though as the perspective is inverted 180 degrees which I hope is cut as it jars horribly. The little music there is adds a lovely 40s flavour but I suppose there isn’t time for people to sing more as they are busy with a distractingly ridiculous amount of smoking.
This Much Ado About Nothing is bolder than one might have expected and consequently the potential for failure does feel greater. Whether it succeeds or not will come to pass over the coming weeks and months, certainly it will become a more comfortable production to watch and it will be interesting to hear which direction JEJ takes his Benedick and what effect that will have on nurturing the chemistry between him and Redgrave. And will they learn the steps for the jig? Who knows!