Combine a population eager for theatre and a playwright with unprecedented influence and the result may be a bit much—Much Ado, that is. In London and the surrounding area, there are three concurrently running productions of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing: two versions in London (Wyndham Theatre; Shakespeare’s Globe) and a third in Guildford (Guildford Shakespeare Company), about a forty-minute train journey to London’s southwest. Each show seeks a different market and sets the play in a different era, but all three discover the joy at the heart of Shakespeare’s comedy.
Much Ado About Nothing handles repeat viewings much better than, say, Hamlet (by the fifth show in four months, I was ready for Hamlet to make his quietus as quickly as possible). The writing is exuberant, the situational comedy hilarious (Benedick’s overhearing Beatrice’s “love” for him is one of the funniest bits in all of Shakespeare), and the characterization precise. Companies put their own spin on the play, of course, but the text itself remains fundamentally sound—and funny.
The first in the Much Ado line up also contains the biggest stars: David Tennant and Catherine Tate. Both are major UK stars in their own right—Tennant as an iteration of Doctor Who and Tate as the Companion. Tennant was also a highly acclaimed Hamlet (read the PlayShakespeare review here), and Tate is also a popular comedienne, whose catch phrase “bovvered” has become ubiquitous. (You can see a clip of a Tennant-Tate sketch here, featuring references to Doctor Who, “bovvered” and Shakespeare’s sonnets.) When the Wyndham Theatre announced it was playing host to a reunited Tennant-Tate in a new production of Much Ado, London audiences went wild. Tickets sold very fast, helped by robust sales from women of all ages (one of my female friends tried explaining Tennant’s sex appeal, but it remains a mystery to me). Director Josie Rourke updates the action to a loud, garish 1980s. There’s plenty of drinking, Star Wars party costumes, and so-bad-they-are-good dance moves. In watching the production, I could never quite disengage with the fact that I was watching David Tennant as Benedick and Catherine Tate as Beatrice. The gags are large, the comedy broad, but the text itself gets lost under the layers of celebrity, sight gags (the “overhearing” scenes involve a great deal of paint and a flight wire) and moving parts (Robert Jones’s set keeps spinning). Then again, this production is not designed to be a master class in high Shakespeare. It’s fun and easy, but good luck getting tickets.
If you were one of the masses who could not afford the Wyndham’s steep ticket prices and were not graced by Lady Luck with a cheap ticket from the daily lottery, there was still plenty Ado to be had just across the river on the South Bank. The Globe’s production features Eve Best as Beatrice; Charles Edwards, who played a rather Flash Gordon-like Oberon in the Rose-Kingston’s Midsummer Night’s Dream opposite Judi Dench and a hilariously affected Andrew Aguecheek in Peter Hall’s Twelfth Night at the National Theatre), takes the role of Benedick. As the god of live theatre would have it, Best was ill the evening I attended. The Globe does not rehearse understudies, so Lisa McGrillis, who plays Margaret, took over the role, script in hand. (Proving she was a highly capable actress, McGrillis pulled off the role with flair and panache.) The setting is traditional pan-Mediterranean, and designer Mike Britton hangs orange branches along the top of the stage (for nice effect on Beatrice’s “civil as an orange” line). In a striking move, director Jeremy Herrin has Claudio read his apology over the “dead” body of Hero (Ony Uhiara). Uhiara keeps perfectly still until Claudio departs, at which point she leaps up with a gasp. Having Hero witness Claudio’s remorse eases their eventual union—and makes for a fun/shocking moment when the “corpse” springs to life. Continuing the theme established by Catherine Tate’s fly wire acrobatics during the “overhearing” scene, Charles Edwards also finds himself attached to a rope while he listens to Claudio (Philip Cumbus), Leonato (Joseph Marcell, of Fresh Prince of Bel Air fame) and Don Pedro (Ewan Stewart) plant stories of Beatrice’s “love.” The Globe’s Much Ado offers a more traditional approach to Shakespeare’s comedy, but it still finds humor—sometimes hammy—in the performances, especially Edwards’s Benedick.
In contrast to the Wyndham’s “play it for laughs” approach, the Guildford Shakespeare company pays keen attention to the prose-speaking (Much Ado is one of Shakespeare’s prosiest plays). They treat the text like an Oscar Wilde play in which characters are witty without being overdone. Their approach works wonderfully, helped by the gorgeous late Edwardian-era costumes by designer Susannah Henry. If the Wyndham’s production is “new school” (perhaps, celebrity school?) and the Globe’s “old school” then Guildford finds a sweet spot in the middle. A coconut shy, Punch-and-Judy show and morris dancers greet the outdoor audience on the grounds of Guildford Castle. Director Hannah Chissick sets the play at the beginning of World War I, with the arrival of officers in smart uniforms. Even in the opening letter reading, the company shows a close attention to creating drama in the text, as the letter, until Leonato (James Sobol Kelly) reads its contents, could contain distressing news of death and defeat. It doesn’t, of course, and what follows is a clever comedy, but we are subtly reminded that the war of wits takes place against a backdrop of strife. Sarah Gobran (Beatrice) and Matt Pinches (Benedick) are partners in real life, and their on-stage chemistry is superb. Guildford Shakespeare Company yet again proves itself one of the strongest, most consistent companies operating in and around London. Their season continues July 14-23 with Merchant of Venice, set in the Guildford College of Law.
As a mature comedy, Much Ado About Nothing is near perfection (I say “near” since there’s always that troubling villain, Don John, who is disappointingly underwritten). And if its three concurrent productions in and around London are any indication, Shakespeare’s romp strikes a chord with audiences while providing a showcase for actor pairs. At its heart, Much Ado succeeds because of its character-driven comedy, perfectly tuned exuberance and sparkling wit. So, in the words of Twelfth Night, “play on.”