“What to do about Nothing?”
Have you ever read, seen or heard something that struck you as so fantastic and brilliant and swoon-worthy that you just had to shout effusive praise from the rooftops as soon as possible so that everyone could share in your joy and marvel at that something’s ingenuity? I saw Mark Rylance’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s wedding farce Much Ado About Nothing, currently playing at the Old Vic in London, about a week ago now. This review has been a long time coming. Make of that radio silence what you will.
It would be nice to provide a positive review for this production. It would be great to remain chipper about the fact that it stars amazing, distinguished actors of stage and screen, and experiments with the setting and cast of characters to create an original retelling of the Shakespeare classic.
However, the play, running in at approximately 2 hours and 45 minutes, is ultimately bland, lifeless and teetering on the edge of pointless. These are harsh criticisms, and coming from the perspective of someone more comfortable reviewing books, TV and film, it may be that my subjective appreciation of the play will not correspond to other peoples. Nevertheless, the whole point of a review is subjectivity, and so I have spent that last 7 days attempting to write this stage review without the benefit of feeling excited by the prospect.
Moving the setting to 1940’s Britain, our cast of characters mingle at a family retreat, with wry, witty bachelor Benedick (James Earl Jones) played as an esteemed US soldier leading his air base compatriots on a visit to some British acquaintances, namely the object of both his affection and disdain, Beatrice (Vanessa Redgrave). These squabbling lovers are two of the greatest characters in Shakespeare’s oeuvre, clearly laying the groundwork for the screwball comedy pairings of classic Hollywood such as His Girl Friday, or the vitriolic banter of Edward Albee’s Martha and George. Having the chance to see these characters performed by elderly thespians seemed rather exciting in an odd way, but the idea, though plucky, fails to translate.
Despite the attempt to veer one of Shakespeare’s greatest comedies in an exciting new direction, the effort is wasted. The actors are fine, and praise should at least be heaped upon them for enjoying the show, even if the audience cannot quite understand the diction or comprehend the plot. Jones delivers a lot of richness to the role, but cannot quite be believed as the charming, comical Benedick, whilst Redgrave delivers masterfully, exuding a childlike exuberance as Beatrice that unfortunately winds up being hollow when faced with trying to force chemistry between the two actors.
The audience were not entirely stone-faced throughout, as the play did provide moments where large genuine guffaws would emanate from the crowd. Dogberry and his watchmen, the young boy scouts, were always a pleasure to watch, as is the scene where Hero and Ursula trick Beatrice into believing Benedick loves her. The latter scene was perhaps the one good, solid use of the dreary stage set.
All in all, there is nothing much more to say about Much Ado, except that it had a marvellous concept, just a poor sense of audience satisfaction. Typically the wedding resolutions at the end of such plays offer the relief and excitement of obstacles having been avoided by the lovers, but the union of Hero and Claudio delivers not delight that the two are finally together, but a pleasurable reward for the audience’s doggedness in getting to the end.