It’s a little ironic that down the road from the Wyndham’s Theatre in the National Portrait Gallery’s Now and Then: Portraits by John Swannell exhibition is a portrait of a young George Michael in his Wham days looking extremely handsome and tanned. This image is very in keeping with the aesthetic of the eighties focused and Wham themed Much Ado About Nothing at the Wyndham’s.
There is no doubt that this production is a product for London’s commercial West End. It has star casting in Catherine Tate and David Tennant as Beatrice and Benedick. Tate and Tennant have worked together not only on the popular TV show Doctor Who, but also as DJs on the Jonathan Ross Radio 2 show, and on Catherine Tate’s own TV sketch show. Not far away from the Wyndham’s theatre is the ABBA themed Mamma Mia at the Prince of Wales Theatre and more or less opposite is Priscilla at the Cambridge Theatre based on Kylie Minogue’s songs. Much Ado About Nothing at the Wyndham’s production takes Shakespeare’s words and presents them as Wham-like and other eighties tracks, so overall this production could be seen as a Wham themed production in the vein of the popular musical shows around it. We even get men in uniforms, which is a reminder of George Michael and Andrew Ridgely in those pilot uniforms at the end of their Club Tropicana video. There were moments I thought I heard echoes of ‘Careless Whisper’, and the finale is a little like a singing along to Wham’s ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’. In taking this approach, the production is in keeping with much of what is happening around it in the commercial West End.
Like Rupert Goold’s current production of The Merchant of Venice, Josie Rourke’s Much Ado About Nothing fuses popular culture with Shakespeare. This fusion works on a very different level from Goold’s Merchant of Venice , which focuses in on the emotional journey of one character (Portia). In contrast, Rourke’s production explores the surface of the play. This is not a criticism, because I think the cast make it look easier than it actually is, and are able to play the comedy in the text and take an audience with them. I doubt that celebrity on its own is enough to move an audience, including those at their first Shakespeare play, to rise to their feet every night and demand four curtain calls.
I blogged about this production on its very first night here, and have had a bit of time after seeing it again to reflect a little more on some of the detail.
The production is set in the early eighties on Gibraltar with the men returning from the Falklands War. There’s the Princess Diana wedding dress complete with creases and her engagement ring. There’s a male character wearing a Margaret Thatcher mask and a reminder of the spitting image puppet than the real Margaret Thatcher. There is also a range of beach wear, including culottes, that have thankfully been left behind in that decade.
The production really reflects a world turned upside down that the text suggests, and before things are returned to normal. In the masked ball, there’s the cross dressing, which we see in other Shakespeare comedies, to suggest this inversion. For most of the production, Beatrice wears Dexys Midnight Runners style dungarees, and at the masked ball she dresses as one of the Blue’s Brothers. At the masked ball, Benedick is in drag (as Miss Piggy I think) and in red doc martens (those that know me would find the red doc martens a little ironic). At the ball, there is also Tina Turner, Darth Vader and Princess Leia. The only character not in fancy dress is the sinister Don John (Elliot Levey) hiding in the shadows and darkness, and still in his naval uniform. It is very noticeable that Claudio (Tom Bateman) is dressed as Adam Ant’s Prince Charming and Hero (Sarah MacRae) wears a Princess Diana mask at the masked ball. In many ways these roles become a comment on the characters, and the over elaborate flashiness and superficiality of the new romantics identity suggests there is not much below the surface in Claudio’s own character. I couldn’t help thinking that though all ends up with a happy ending and Hero has clearly got her man, and that the future may not be so happy with a man who has presented his dark angry side at least three times in three days. His anger at Don Pedro’s (Adam James) wooing of Hero at the ball, his response to Hero at the wedding, and the way he responds to her mock death. I thought Sarah MacRae’s Hero was a very interesting portrayal. She works with the silences very well especially in Act 1, when Beatrice does all the talking and won’t give her the opportunity to speak. It’s a feisty portrayal and one that moves away from the assumption Hero is weak and passive. This Hero is clearly taken with Claudio from the start, and like Portia (Susannah Fielding) in Goold’s Merchant of Venice is determined to get her man.
Alcohol plays a large part in the production. We see a lot of social drinking, and even from the moment from when the messenger (Leo Staar) arrives guests are handed bottles and cans of beer. This heavy drinking results in hangovers and Benedick delivers his soliloquy at the start of 2.3 clearly suffering from the night before. His state gives a rationale for his melancholy and derogatory remarks about marriage and makes it easier to believe that he changes his mind just a few minutes later. Drinking in his production moves quickly from a fun social pastime and underlies some of the darker moments in the production. Claudio drinks to excess from a bottle of spirits to forget when he thinks Hero is dead, and Leonato (Jonathan Coy) is made bold to challenge Don Pedro (Adam James) through drinking too much champagne at the non wedding reception. Both Margaret (Natalie Thomas) and Claudio’s drinks are spiked so that they can easily be tricked by the manipulative Borachio (Alex Beckett) and Don John.
The hen party and stag nights are shown on stage and take place at either side of the revolving stage, and are complete with male and female strippers. This is a device to present the ‘chamber window’ to the audience, as this is normally off stage action. In presenting the audience with an explanation of what Claudio and Don Pedro see shifts some of the blame away from Claudio for his callous reaction to the denouncement at the wedding. At the end of the day Don John’s plot is about getting revenge for Claudio’s part in his downfall and he doesn’t really care that Hero is caught up and discredited in the scheme.
Beatrice and Benedick sit slightly aside from the other characters in this production. Benedick is never really part of the other men’s group and this is often seen alone such as before his gulling scenes, in the church, and when he attempts to serenades Beatrice with the boy’s toy organ. This isolation makes David Tennant’s dramatic entrance in a golf buggy workable, and is a solution to getting him on stage, and deal with the celebrity moment – that’s why I stress it is David Tennant’s entrance here. There’s a lovely moment on the hen/stag nights when Beatrice and Benedick slightly separate from the other groups catch a glimpse of each other.
There is almost a competition going on between Benedick and Beatrice to get the most laughs in their gulling scenes, which are both centred around a room which is the process of being painted. Benedick’s scene works through the use of slapstick, his response to the men setting him up, and the clever use of the revolving stage which presents different views of him and the men who can clearly see him. An outcome is that Benedick ends up covered in paint. Indeed, this presents Benedick with a beard made of paint making later jokes about his beard and barbers more relevant. The boy is used well in this production, and his part in getting the book for Benedick is very funny in the gulling scene.
Tennant has a wonderful sense of timing that allows him to pause just long enough to get the laughs. In his prose soliloquy at the end of the gulling, he is clearly working with the audience taking them as far as he can, and picking up on a stray giggle in order to direct the line ‘the world must be peopled to’ to that audience member. Tennant warms up the audience for Tate to enter. Benedick has fallen in love with Beatrice at her most unattractive moment and she enters tugging at her bikini bottoms to release them from her crutch. There’s an interesting use of a stage harness in Beatrice’s gulling scene, which was altered after the first night, to give the actions more of a rationale. It is a comedy after all, and stage business in keeping with pantomime is not amiss.
The ‘kill Claudio’ moment is enormously difficult for Tate to play as she chooses to move away from the sadness she feels at Hero’s shaming, to show her joy at Benedick’s declaration of love for her. Tate uses the moment to demonstrate her sketch show faces, which are very funny, but then she has to calm the audience down and move the tone back to a very serious one. In the previews the audience laughed at the ‘kill Claudio’ line, and that just doesn’t work, but I noted Tate had worked hard at this by using a long pause and was getting the stunned silent response the line needs in later performances.
The Dogberry scenes are very funny and work well as a mirror to the other characters. Dogberry (John Ramm) is proud of his role as the leader of the watch and sees himself as a Rambo character. He may mix up his words and be a little convoluted, but when he arrives with his rifle and as the curtain falls for the interval, you really feel that Conrad and Borachio’s days are numbered – boom!. If only Leonato had listened to Dogberry when he clambers over the chairs set out for the wedding to reveal all.
The inclusion of Innogen didn’t work for me. It means she has to be silent in the church schemes and yet during our glimpse of the hen night she’s flirting with the male stripper, which I think might be out of character.
I think that Adam James’ Don Pedro is a relaxed approach to the role and by doing this James has created a man who has lost control of discipline and is too at ease with his men. I think he really does want to marry Beatrice and is rather hurt by her crass rejection. His leadership has broken down, and he encourages the drinking at the stag night, sets up the gulling and takes his eye off his brother. The latter is a problem because Don Pedro’s reactions to Don John have indicated that he does not trust him. The brothers are not reconciled in this production, and it is also clear that Benedick does not like Don John either and ignores his entrance in 1.1. Don Pedro does stand beside Claudio though, and takes some responsibility for his part in the shaming of Hero.
I have read in places some criticism of audiences for laughing at the play and giving it a standing ovation. I think it is a little unfair to be critical because some audience members may have a frame of reference that they might bring to the performance e.g. they have seen other productions, or know the text has been cut. Other members of the audience are bringing their own frames of references from popular culture with them to the production. I don’t see a problem with people enjoying seeing Tate applying her toolkit of faces and voices to this role, or revelling in the sparring between Benedick and Beatrice and seeing this as an echo of the Donna/Doctor combination in Doctor Who. I am not sure I want to be critical of audiences enjoying an evening watching Shakespeare.
What this production does really well is give a sense of the excess at the beginning of the eighties. It’s a moment with a Tory government and the rise of the commercial West End musical. When the party is over what will be left? I am aware I am complicit in the setting of the ticket prices, because I have bought the tickets at the high prices. As much I was interested by the way this production worked in the context of the West End, I thought that it was very expensive. In many ways my visits to this production are being subsidised by all the cheaper tickets I have bought for other productions (including a groundling ticket for the Globe production so I can see that more than once). If everyone was charging this amount for a stalls ticket, my theatre going days would be over very quickly.
Reviews and Previews
BBC News – David Tennant and Catherine Tate reu…David Tennant & Catherine Tate Star in Much Ado…Express.co.uk – Home of the Daily and Sunday Express | Stage :: Much Ado About Nothing, 4/5 Wyndham’s, London. Tel: 0844 482 5120Tate Nabs Tennant – – Blog – Whatsonstage.comTwo Ados | The SpectatorAbout the Contributors – Theaternewsonline .comDavid Tennant and Catherine Tate interview for ‘Much Ado About Nothing – TelegraphTennant and Tate reunite for Much Ado | The Off…Divergent Takes on ‘Much Ado’ – NYTimes.comFrom Doctor Who to Much Ado for Tennant and Tat…Tennant and Tate win over critics – News, Entertainment – Belfasttelegraph.co.ukBBC News – David Tennant and Catherine Tate to …Much ado about 1980s Gibraltar | Stage | guardian.co.ukCan David Tennant and Catherine Tate make Shakespeare the year’s hottest ticket? – Features, Theatre & Dance – The IndependentThe Stage / Shenton’s View / Spoiler alerts (and spoiling for a fight)