Thursday, December 20, 2007
I often wonder what actors talk about in those moments when they are on stage but the production is yet to officially ‘start’. Are they wryly dissecting the sartorial efforts of the front row? Are they engaging in some in-character debate about codpieces?
Nicholas Hytner’s production of Much Ado About Nothing opens with Leonato and family having a spot of dinner, a scene which requires a good proportion of the cast to be on stage as the audience file in and take their seats. There’s a lot of chatter in this sequence but it’s impossible to make out what’s being said.
Simon Russell Beale and Zoe Wanamaker make a pleasingly mature Benedick and Beatrice: him with a rather unmilitary paunch; her with a wine glass near permanently dangling from her hand, a woman after my own heart. Beale was particularly wonderful I thought, tremendously endearing, if, perhaps, a bit too soft-hearted in the role, while Wanamaker, though convincing as a strong-willed, acid-tongued woman, was conversely rather too spiky, too hard-edged. And as such the chemistry between them refused to spark as it should; their verbal sparring didn’t have the necessary sexual undercurrent. You couldn’t quite believe he would ever be able to ‘stop her mouth,’ in any capacity.
There was, however, a lovely bit of comedy business with a pool in which Beale demonstrated the kind of precise comic timing that caused the bronchial National Theatre audience to cease coughing for a good thirty seconds and applaud instead. It was so funny that Hytner tried to repeat it in the following scene with Beatrice – with less success, the surprise factor this time absent. (I did wonder if the odd hair-wrap Wanamaker was sporting for this scene might have concealed some kind of shower cap, to cut down on frantic interval hair-drying.)
Much Ado is, of course, a play with a jet black heart, the Beatrice and Bendick narrative merely a sub-plot to the cruel machinations that lead to the brutal jilting of Hero. But the shift in tone proved a difficult one, and I was surprised at the number of people who greeted Beatrice's impassioned request for Benedick to “Kill Claudio” with a casual chuckle. On the whole I think I preferred Marianne Elliot’s recent-ish Cuban-set take on the play, which managed to better inject an under-layer of menace into proceedings.
Where Hytner’s production struck gold was in the casting of Mark Addy as Dogberry. He was superbly self-important and entertainingly accompanied by That Chap From The Vicar Of Dibley.
The set was a strange blend: Mediterranean in the main but with this minimal, slatted central structure that divided the space and appeared rather Japanese in nature. The Olivier’s revolve got to do plenty of revolving, allowing for lots of opportunity for eavesdropping and dancing. And the West End Whingers will be gladdened to know that said dancing was accompanied by a fair bit of hey-nonny-ing, and the use of, not just a mandolin, but an accordion and a really big tambourine too. There was a disappointing dearth of goats though.