By; William Shakespeare
Directed by: Nicholas Hytner
Venue: Olivier Theatre
Date: Wednesday 30th January 2008
We’d seen such a great Much Ado last summer in the Swan, part of the Complete Works, that I was a bit worried that we wouldn’t appreciate this one fully. I didn’t have too much to worry about, though. While it wasn’t as lively as the RSC production, this performance had some of the best interpretations of the lines I’ve heard, and seen. Some of the business was off the text, but still incredibly funny, and the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick was detailed and moving, as well as bringing out the humour brilliantly.
The set used the revolving box from The Alchemist (Oct 2006), with wooden slatted walls on two sides, and pergolas along them. There were flats with upper windows at various angles behind the box. Furniture was brought on as needed, and with the revolve, the next scene could be set up without distracting us from the current scene – very effective. During the marvellous overhearing scenes, there was a pond in the main area, and it’s put to good use – both Beatrice and Benedick fall in it. Although this set up allowed for greater flow between the scenes, I did feel the pace was a bit slow at times.
The costumes were a mixture, part Jacobethan, part Olde Worlde, as far as I could tell; let’s face it, I’m not an expert in these matters, and that’s probably why I don’t get put off productions that have made unusual costuming decisions. Anyway, I liked them. So there.
There were several of the female cast on stage at the start, nibbling away at fruit and the like, and chatting. Leonato arrives with Beatrice, and joins them. I do like this kind of opening –we have to pay attention for longer to see what’s going to happen. Unfortunately, they work best if the audience cooperates, and this time we had a chatty couple behind who weren’t going to give up their talking time just to allow us all to drink in the atmosphere being so carefully set up for us. (B*$^&@#>.)
Along comes the messenger, giving Leonato a letter, and so out of breath he has to sit down for a bit. They get him some food and water to wash in, etc. Beatrice is sprawled on a chair at the end of the table, and joins in with her bitchy questions from there. It’s a good start, giving us the background, the information that Hero fancies Claudio, and the beginning of a understanding of the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick.
When Don Pedro does arrive, attended by various nobles, the bows and curtseys are quite formal, indicating that Don Pedro, a prince of Arragon, is pretty senior in this society, and not to be trifled with. He, on the other hand, has no concerns about trifling with other people. I was very aware in this production that he seems to be determined to get involved in everyone else’s life, and doesn’t seem to have much of a life of his own. The reactions from Claudio later on, when Don Pedro is spelling out how he’ll woo Hero on Claudio’s behalf, make it quite clear that Claudio isn’t keen on the idea, but doesn’t know how to get this point across to the prince. Likewise, when Beatrice has made it clear that she’s been romantically involved with Benedick before, and it didn’t end happily, the prince suddenly announces he’s going to play a trick on both Beatrice and Benedick to get each to fall in love with other, and all for sport! What a great laugh they’ll all have. It’s a really unpleasant side to the prince’s character, and I’ve never seen it brought out so much before (or I just never spotted it before). Admittedly, Beatrice has just made a faux pas – not only does she reject Don Pedro’s suggestion that she and he could become an item, she possibly triggers the offer by getting a bit frisky, and slapping the prince on the bum! It’s possible he feels hurt (emotionally, that is) and wants some revenge, but I didn’t get that from this performance. On the whole, it came across as the prince just being incredibly insensitive to the feelings of those around him, and this may partially explain why Don John, his brother, doesn’t like him.
Back with the prince’s first entrance (I hope you’ve got a cup of tea, this may take some time), Benedick and Beatrice are soon sniping at each other, while the others drift off towards the back of the stage. That was one of the things I liked about this staging – the set design made it easy for characters to drift in and out of the main playing area, whichever one was facing us at the time, and to wend their way around as the set rotated, making this much less static, and much more interesting. I got the impression that Benedick is fending Beatrice off – he’s had enough of her rough tongue, and wants to avoid her as much as possible. Yet, when he’s trying to talk Claudio out of being in love with Hero, he readily refers to Beatrice in superlative terms. She “exceeds her [Hero] as much in beauty as the first of May doth the last of December”. Pretty clear what he thinks of Beatrice as a woman, then. And this lays the groundwork nicely for the declaration of love in the church.
After the prince’s arrival, Benedick is quick to mention that he’s bursting to tell him everything – blabber mouth. I loved the delivery of these lines. Simon Russell Beale has such an ability to speak Shakespearean lines as though they made sense, which means they often do, and this was no exception. Along with the other members of the cast, I must add, who all contributed to this intelligent and intelligible production.
This was one of those occasions when the stage revolved to allow the characters to move into another part of the premises. As the men are talking, well, actually, as Benedick is railing against marriage with short contributions from the other two, they move round into the prince’s bedchamber, so he can change his shirt. While he does this, and after Benedick has left, the prince and Claudio discuss Hero, and the prince comes up with his plan to do the wooing for Claudio. Claudio keeps trying to get some words out to express his concern about this, but doesn’t quite manage to say anything. Off they go, and the effect of their conversation will be picked up by others shortly.
Leonato has a short conversation with his brother, Antonio, who informs him that the prince is in love with Hero, and intends to woo her at the dance. It’s exciting news, but this time Leonato restrains himself, and decides to wait and see what happens. He’ll warn Hero though, just in case. Next we see Don John, the sulky one, brooding intently round the back of the set. Conrad, one of his servants, tries to advise him to be more sociable, as he’s only recently been reconciled to his brother, but Don John is determined to be himself, and sulk as much as he wants to. This makes him sound like a stubborn teenager, but Andrew Woodall played him with some gravitas, making me wonder if he was just suffering from depression. Borachio arrives, with the news about the wooing, and this time, it’s the correct version, that the prince intends to woo Hero on behalf of Claudio. The prospect of throwing a very large spanner in the works cheers up Don John enormously – he almost smiled – and off they go to cause mischief. It’s always nice to know where you stand with the villains.
The dance scene begins with the ladies, Leonato and Antonio sitting in the seats at the side of the floor; the other men haven’t yet arrived. Beatrice’s comments on the unsuitability of any man to be her husband are entertaining enough, and her comments about men with no beards are funnier because her uncle, Antonio, is clean-shaven. The bickering continues between different couples as the dancing gets underway, and eventually the set rotates us round to where Beatrice had just been told something about herself by a masked man. Who can it be? The nose of his mask is extraordinarily long, yet the form seems familiar. Zounds, it’s Benedick, but did Beatrice spot him? I should think so, despite her obvious delight in knocking back the wine. Benedick comes off second best, again, and his reactions are clear, despite the disguise.
Now Don John does his evil work with Claudio, deliberately mistaking him for Benedick. Frankly, this is absurd, given their respective shapes, but we mustn’t let that get in the way of an enjoyable bit of theatre. And in any case, Claudio’s sulk doesn’t last long, as eventually Don Pedro tells him that Hero is won. Before that, we and the prince get to hear Benedick ranting at great length about how terrible Beatrice is. Honestly, to listen to him go on and on and on, anyone would think he’s besotted by her. Even though he asks the prince to send him away on some impossible mission as soon as she reappears with her relatives. Mind you, he does dash off almost immediately after that, so he’s clearly still upset at his verbal pasting from Beatrice.
She, on the other hand, has brought Claudio along to be given the good news about Hero, and rightly divines what’s upsetting him. It’s noticeable how little Claudio has to say at this point – everyone on stage notices, never mind the audience. With the RSC production last year I was reminded that actually Hero and Claudio have probably not spoken at all; here it was just a reflection of Claudio’s youth and inexperience. He reminded me of Romeo – all passion and flowery romantic words, but no real understanding of relationships, nor any real trust in Hero, as it turns out. It’s often a concern as to why she’s willing to take him back after his treatment of her, but this production handles that very well. Later. (It’s at this time that Beatrice lets her hand stray too far, and ends up having to deflect the proposal from Don Pedro.)
His first attempt at upsetting everyone having lost its momentum, Don John now picks up Borachio’s offer to delude the prince and Claudio and derail the marriage altogether. It’s not altogether clear why Borachio is doing this. I assume it’s because he supports Don John in mischief. The RSC had Borachio being the only man who actually woos Hero, and who wanted to stop this marriage to give himself a chance again, but here it’s not specified. I also realised for the first time that we never actually see this discovery scene. It’s so well described that I feel I must have seen it, yet it’s only in the words. This makes me realise how important some of these apparently trivial scenes can be.
Now for the water feature. The sunken pool on the terrace comes into its own. Benedick sends one of the household maids to fetch his book, rather than a boy. He then has one of the best soliloquies in Shakespeare – I love the way he disdains marriage, then spends ages spelling out his ideal woman. When the prince, Claudio and Leonato arrive, the slatted walls serve for cover, and Benedick nips behind one, taking his chair with him. At one point, the folding chair decides to fold up, and we have one of those lovely moments when the people on stage have to ignore an obvious giveaway, just so they can carry on with their entrapment. They include the music in this production, and it’s quite enjoyable, though I’ve never figured out why Balthazar is going on about what a bad singer he is. Anyway, it’s pleasant enough, and then the three conspirators get down to business.
This is one of the best scenes in Shakespeare’s comedies, and these actors got full measure out of it. Leonato has tremendous difficulty remembering what to say, unlike the two soldiers, who’re obviously used to practical jokes. Benedick’s reactions are marvellously funny; in fact it’s difficult to know which way to look during this scene. They helped out by having Benedick move around a lot, eventually lurking behind the chair he’d draped his jacket over at the start. I did like they way he sidled up to the thin pillar of the pergola and tried to hide behind it – Wile E. Coyote might have managed it, but cuddly Simon…..
They staged this scene so that the prince and his cohorts wend their way to the back of the stage, only to return for their final lines. Benedick, meanwhile, has come onto the main part of the stage, and begins his lines (I think). When they return, he’s trapped, and ends up diving into the pool to hide – massive splash. This was funny enough, but then, after a long pause, while the others are busy trying not to crack up completely, the top of Benedick’s head appears over the side of the pool. The expression in Simon Russell Beale’s eyes was hilarious. And the idea that the others couldn’t see him was farcical (good farcical, that is). After the others leave, Benedick stays in the pool for a bit, thinking through what he’s just heard, and leaning on the side of the pool as if he were at a spa. When Beatrice comes on to call him in for dinner, he’s out of the pool, and stands there, dripping wet. After her tart summons is over, there’s the wonderful line “‘Against my will I am sent to bid you come in to dinner ,’ there’s a double meaning in that.” Benedick’s euphoria as he grasps this fictitious straw of hope is side-splitting.
And, just so we don’t get bored, the next eavesdropping scene follows on immediately. Will knew when to report a scene, and when to show us it in full. This time it’s Hero and Ursula setting the trap, and sending Margaret off to lure Beatrice into it. This time, the set has been on the turn, and so Beatrice is able to hide better than Benedick. Again, she reacts well to the two women’s chat, even putting her hands through the slats to try and strangle Ursula after some pointed comment. She also thinks about hiding behind a pergola pole at one point, but finds a better opportunity to overhear them. One of the maids is mopping up after the last big splash, and Beatrice borrows her hat, mop and bucket. In their talk, Hero and Ursula have lost sight of Beatrice, and look around for her, eventually spotting the lady herself, despite the amazing disguise. Ursula signals to the “maid” to carry on cleaning up, and when she accidentally knocks her bucket into the pool, indicates she should get it out. This Beatrice attempts to do without giving herself away, and the inevitable happens – another splash! This was even funnier, though we knew it was coming. Hero and Ursula are soon off the stage, and Beatrice heaves herself out pretty quickly – these dresses soak up a lot of water – and heads off to dry herself.
By now, Benedick has not only dried himself, he’s had a shave as well, and the prince, Claudio and Leonato discover him round the other side of the stage. He tries to hide his face, but they soon discover what’s going on and let rip with their jests. Benedick manages to get away with Leonato to discuss a matter of some importance, leaving the coast clear for Don John to plant more evil seeds in men’s minds. And now the interval.
The second half opened with Dogberry and the watch. Dogberry has always been a problem for me. His mangling of the language has rarely come across well, and there’s often a problem with the reactions of the watch members. If they don’t spot that Dogberry’s talking rubbish, it reduces the humour for me. It works much better when Dogberry’s talking to the gentry, although then there’s a risk of patronising attitudes spoiling the fun. All in all, he’s one of the trickier clowns. Here we have Mark Addy taking him on, and he did a respectable job with it. Verges, played by Trevor Peacock, plays an old doddery man, who lines up behind Dogberry whenever they have to bow, leading to an unfortunate alignment of head and bum. Not the worst watch I’ve seen, by any means, and they catch the villains Conrad and Borachio well enough.
Margaret is helping Hero dress for her wedding, and when Beatrice comes on with a stinker of a cold, Margaret ends up being the lively one. Beatrice evidently didn’t get dry quick enough after her swim. Dogberry turns up just as Leonato is putting the finishing touches to his outfit, and so gets sent off to do the interrogation himself. His lines were funny, and his taking of the wine, including a bottle or two for later, was entertaining.
The church scene is a pivotal one, and this staging brought out the ups and downs very well. First, there’s the lovely entrance of the bride, and the groom’s party. It’s all very solemn and full of expectation. Then there’s the shocking accusations against Hero, and everything’s thrown into confusion. Leonato is enraged against his daughter (silly old fool, too keen on the prince, that’s his problem), Hero is amazed, Beatrice is appalled, the prince’s company, except Benedick, are cold, and the friar keeps his cool remarkably well. There are a number of meddling friars in Shakespeare’s works – this one gets away with it. After the prince’s departure, and after Leonato has been calmed down (no easy task), there’s a quieter phase when Beatrice and Benedick get a chance to talk. I was very aware that there’s no time to reflect on the situation during the manic part of the scene, and it’s lovely to have this section when we can really feel the emotions that have been stirred up. I usually relate best to Beatrice’s grief and anger, probably because they’re the main emotions on show, and I feel it’s important to register what a huge disruption this event has caused to everyone. Benedick manages to express his love for Beatrice now she’s no longer sniping at him, and he sounded a bit surprised at saying it, or perhaps he was just surprised how easily it popped out. For all the context and content, it’s lovely to see the two of them talking as human to human, and learning to work together.
Now Dogberry confronts the villains, and confounds them with his incisive wit, his sharp interrogation techniques…. You’re not believing this, are you? OK, it’s the usual scene, with Dogberry most insistent he be “writ down an ass”. His indignation was lovely to see.
Next Leonato and his brother meet up with the prince and Claudio, and nearly come to blows. Antonio even heads off to fetch his massive broadsword, bigger than himself, and waves it around dangerously. The danger is more that he’ll accidentally hit something than that he’ll actually fight with it, and it was nicely humorous. They soon get it off him, and then Benedick arrives with the serious challenge. The change in his manner is noticeable. He delivers the challenge sincerely, and with enough temper to suggest he really does know what he’s doing with a sword. Just when the prince and Claudio thought things couldn’t get any worse, Dogberry and his watch arrive with the prisoners, and all is revealed. Leonato also turns up, with his brother, and after telling Claudio what he has to do to untarnish Hero’s memory (they think she’s died), suggests that Claudio marry his brother’s daughter instead, “almost the copy of my child that’s dead”. Pity he didn’t warn his brother about this – he nearly spoils the plan by his reactions.
As they all leave, and the set rotates, we see Margaret has been listening in, at least to the last part of this scene, and so realises that Borachio has been arrested, and that she’s probably played a part in getting Hero falsely accused. She’s quick to recover her wits, though, as Benedick asks her to fetch Beatrice to him. He ruminates about love, letting us know he’s not very good at poetry, and then when Beatrice comes they have one of their usual sparring matches, though without the bitterness that was present before.
For the tomb scene, Claudio actually lies on the tomb (hints of necrophilia there, I feel), and as he’s singing his hymn, we see Hero being brought on to watch by her father, from behind the partition. She takes a good long look at Claudio, and then nods to her father, indicating she’s willing to marry him. This was a good piece of staging, as it lets us see that she’s made her own choice, very important after what’s happened.
For the final scene, the ladies all enter with veils, and Claudio resigns himself to marrying some young woman, then has all the joy of finding Hero returned (yes, of course I cried). When Benedick asks the friar to add him and Beatrice to the wedding plans, he puts his hands over his face for a moment before coming out with the dreaded words “honourable marriage”. The poems turn up, and she grabs hers and eats it before he can read it, then reads his, giving a really evil cackle at his pathetic attempts at rhyme. It’s a lovely happy ending, and we applauded for a long time. For all its problems, this is a hugely enjoyable play, and this was one of the best productions I’ve seen of it.
© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me