Review: Much Ado About Nothing, Wyndham’s Theatre, Friday 3 June 2011

‘There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and her; they never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them’

At the heart of Much Ado About Nothing and its enduring popularity is the ‘merry war’ between sparring lovers Beatrice and Benedick, a clash of wits that demands razor sharp tongues and fizzling chemistry. Josie Rourke’s production has been given the helpful head-start of having the latter already neatly packaged, with a ready made partnership in the form of on-screen companions David Tennant and Catherine Tate. Their natural rapport translates smoothly to the stage in what is a must-see production for Shakespeare and Doctor Who fans alike.

Rourke has transported the action to 1980s Gibraltar as a group of officers return from conflict for a sojourn of merry-making, both time and setting providing an apt backdrop for party island excesses. In this updated production, Sarah MacRae’s Hero is a Princess Di wannabe, decked out for her wedding in meringue, Emanuel-esque splendour in a nice bittersweet touch. There lingers beneath the fun and games an underlying contrast between Hero and Claudio’s fairytale facade of love, so embodied in the Royal Wedding of that era, and the true match of minds and passions found in Beatrice and Benedick.

While nominally on the sidelines of the main action, it is this sparkling pairing that is the true attraction of Shakespeare’s spirited comedy. As the quarrelling duo, Tennant and Tate do not disappoint. They are at their best in the quick-fire verbal exchanges, with a naturalistic approach to the dialogue that makes every sardonic taunt roll off the tongue.

Tennant is the perfect Benedick, lending the role just the right comic touch while also plumbing greater depths with his portrayal of a man utterly, hopelessly in love. His comic tour-de-force arrives with the eavesdropping scene, handled with an ideal balance of slapstick and stunned disbelief. The concluding lines, delivered by Tennant to the audience with arms flung open, are deservedly milked.

Tate, on the other hand, does not quite match her comedic excellence with a contrasting tenderness as Beatrice succumbs to love. There is no doubt about Tate’s ability as a comic performer, but Rourke’s direction rather heavy-handedly exploits the leading lady’s known strengths, with a few too many funny voices and not enough texture. Heavy-handed too is the scene in which Beatrice overhears Benedick’s reported love for her, with some ridiculous messing around with pulleys making it a clumsy counterpart to Tennant’s comic triumph.

Any shortcomings in Tate’s performance, however, can be attributed to a conscious weight given in this production to comedy, a weight that is for the most part vindicated. The entertaining slapstick antics and playful eighties references bring the house down, although there are moments when the dialogue threatens to be swamped by the chaos. Even the villainous activities of Don John are rendered laughable in a fresh and intriguing interpretation from Elliot Levey, who plays the vindictive prince as a camp, frustrated and possibly closeted baddie, a reading that gives impetus to his scheming and prevents him from becoming a cardboard cut-out villain.

While Tennant and Tate are the main attractions, they receive more than adequate support from a strong cast. John Ramm provides a refreshingly different take on Dogberry, turning him into an aspiring Rambo figure, while Tom Bateman makes an impressive debut as ardent young lover Claudio. Robert Jones’ design is also one of the stars, adding glamour to the proceedings, with a revolving stage compounding the sense of continuous action.

Updatings of Shakespeare always run the risk of seeming forced, superficial or irrelevant, but these are risks that are coolly side-stepped by Rourke’s assured and stylish production. The 1980s setting seems a perfect fit, creating a Much Ado that is modern, fun and sexy. This version is not without its faults, but the frenzied hype surrounding the Tennant and Tate pairing is more than justified.

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