By: William Shakespeare
Directed by: Josie Rourke
Venue: Wyndhams Theatre
Date: Monday 11th July 2011
I was a bit disappointed with tonight’s experience, not so much due to the production as the audience. With so many David and Catherine fans, the laughter came all too easily, and while some of it was very well deserved, there were times when it swamped the dialogue, times when it was strangely absent, and times when it came for no apparent reason at all. This was not your regular Shakespeare audience, and while I’m glad this run has been so successful, and hope that it will turn one or two youngsters on to Shakespeare’s work, I found that the uncritical adulation spoiled my enjoyment a bit.
The set was excellent, with four big pillars on a revolve surrounded by slatted panels and doorways suggesting the warm Mediterranean location perfectly. The costumes were also excellent – modern dress, with military costumes and formal suits rubbing shoulders with scruffy dungarees and T-shirts. Benedict’s costume for the masked ball looked like a cross between Lily Savage and Olivia Newton John in the final scene of Grease, Hero’s wedding dress echoed Diana’s, and Dogberry wore military fatigues with the word ‘officer’ across his chest.
The parts that didn’t work so well for me included the second part of the eavesdropping scene and some of the ruined wedding scene. The eavesdropping scene was staged with a couple of decorators bringing their trolley on stage and touching up the paintwork on a door and then one of the pillars. This allowed Benedict to get white paint on one hand, which then ended up on his face, clothes, etc. All this was very funny, but the trouble is there’s another round of eavesdropping to go, and Beatrice not only has to do something different, it really has to top Benedict’s efforts or the energy will flag. Tonight, Beatrice’s comic business involved covering herself with the painters’ tarpaulin, then groping her way towards the back of the stage where she could be attached to a hook and lifted up. All well and good, and very funny to start with, but then the laughter just drowned out the dialogue and I switched off very quickly. I’ve seen this done better.
The wedding scene started very well, with a nice change of pace into the darker phase of the play. Benedict’s reactions were particularly good here, making it clear that even this joker recognises the enormity of the Prince and Duke’s accusation. Then when Beatrice and Benedict are left alone, the humour of their mutual admissions of love were funny, but the excessive audience reactions jarred with the previous mood, and when Beatrice tells Benedict that she wants him to kill Claudio, this was also greeted with laughter, which is so wrong and certainly not how it was played. Even so, I was very moved by this scene, not as far as needing a hanky, but my eyes were definitely wet. This sort of insensitive response detracts from the performance for me, although not completely, thank goodness.
Other negatives in the staging included the strange bit after Claudio has read the poem over Hero’s grave. He has a portable CD player and some booze with him for his all-night vigil, and by dint of playing loud music, swigging the booze and throwing himself around a lot, I deduced we were to understand that he was truly sorry for what he’d done. In case we hadn’t taken the hint, he even took out a gun, and was about to shoot himself when Hero walked in, dressed in black. He’s so amazed by her appearance that he collapses on the floor, where the Prince finds him the next morning. Neither Steve nor I could figure this one out. Was it Hero herself stopping him, in which case how did she get there at just the right moment, or was it a vision he was having, in which case why was she in a completely different outfit? I’m all for ambiguity, but this was just vague.
I was also suspicious of the semi-corpsing when Beatrice came to call Benedict in to dinner. We’ve seen this sort of rehearsed improv before, and it didn’t ring completely true for me, while Steve was out and sure it was a fake. I noticed tonight that Catherine Tate reappeared in the wings briefly after her final departure – no idea why.
The other main problem I had with the performance was Catherine Tate’s weak delivery. She started off well, but in any prolonged speech she tended to lose energy and volume. This wouldn’t have been a problem in a more average production, but with such high-powered performers around her it was very noticeable. I also found Don John and Borachio hard to follow, Don John because of his rather jerky delivery, and Borachio because I couldn’t tune in to the accent he was using. Choosing to replace Leonato’s brother with his wife was an interesting move – trying to balance up the sexes perhaps? – but her part was seriously underwritten as a result, with nothing to say in the wedding scene, and no threat to fight the Prince either. Her delivery was even weaker than Catherine Tate’s, so perhaps it was a blessing she had so few lines.
So what did I enjoy about the play? Well, the other performances were excellent, and even Dogberry came out funnier than usual. John Ramm still struggled with that first scene – when no-one is pointing out the errors it can fall a little flat – but his later appearances went down well, especially his final leave-taking of Leonato. He had a thing with his sidekick, Verges, where they put their fists together and said ‘boom’. He tried to go through the motions of this with Leonato as well, but realised it wasn’t going to be reciprocated, or appreciated. His insistence on being ‘written down an ass’ went down very well with this crowd, which made up for them missing some of the other gems.
David Tennant was, as expected, excellent, with great comic timing and clear delivery of the lines. I noticed he was more static than in his RSC roles, but that’s probably the proscenium arch for you. He did have to mug it up a bit for this audience, but he does that so well, who cares? Both Adam James as the Prince and Tom Bateman as Claudio were very good, and I was impressed with what I could hear of Sarah Macrae as Hero – her part suffered the worst from the excessive laughter. I enjoyed Jonathan Coy’s excellent Leonato, and although I couldn’t always make out Don John’s dialogue, I appreciated Elliot Levey’s portrayal of the part. It reminded me of Richard Nixon, all stiff and formal, and with inappropriate attempts to be one of the boys, including offering a cigarette to the young lad.
The pre-wedding stag and hen nights were a very good piece of staging, and allowed ‘Hero’s’ infidelity to be staged as a shag against the wall in a dark space with Margaret wearing Hero’s bridal veil. It also allowed Don John to craftily get both his brother and Claudio well drunk before showing them the ‘proof’.
When the Prince proposed to Beatrice, he was in earnest, and her embarrassment when she realises this was evident. He’s clearly hurt by her rejection, and Leonato’s request for her to ‘look to those things I told you of’ is solely an excuse to get her out of there, for which she’s very grateful.
The young boy was excellent, too – don’t know which one it was tonight, their pictures in the program are too similar. He brought the book back just at the wrong time, and finally Benedict threw it off the stage to get rid of it and him. Later, when Benedict is attempting to compose a love-song to Beatrice using an electronic keyboard, he pushes a button which starts the machine playing some music, and can’t get it to stop. Needless to say, when the young lad walks across the back of the stage, he sees that Benedict’s in trouble, and with the resigned air of the technically savvy youth, walks over, pushes the right button, and leaves. Beautifully done. Benedict then starts checking out some of the other options, before giving up entirely. I think this scene was put before his request to Margaret to fetch Beatrice, but I can’t be sure.
During the wedding scene, the reactions from Don John and Margaret were easy to miss, but well worth catching. Don John was smirking a bit when Hero was accused, while Margaret looked shocked, then worried, then guilty, and her mother hustled her out of the church quickly at the end.
Overall, it was a lively and fairly straightforward interpretation of the play, with lots of humour and affection between the characters, and despite the audience reactions, I enjoyed it very much.
© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me