Much Ado About Nothing, Wyndham’s Theatre, 11 June 2011
David Tennant and Catherine Tate’s production of Much Ado About Nothing was one of the most thought-provoking pieces of theatre I have seen in a long time. But for all the wrong reasons.
Very little about it was run of the mill. For starters, the whole idea for the production originated with the cast. They had come up with the idea of performing the roles of Beatrice and Benedick and then pitched the idea to the theatre. The principal actors therefore came as a package rather than being selected by a casting process.
Booking opened to coincide with Tennant and Tate’s appearance on BBC Breakfast on 8 January 2011. The inevitable phone line jam and website crash ensued as thousands of people tried to book at once.
The tickets were quite expensive. Most of the stalls seats were £61, and there was a section of twenty allegedly “premium” seats costing theatregoers a hefty £86 each.
If all this had been in aid of charity then it would have been possible to overlook the production’s faults and charitably get with the mood of the evening. But this was a commercial proposition, and one which appeared to be trading on a combination of a celebrity cast and a healthy dose of the price-placebo effect.
The price-placebo effect is a phenomenon which causes high-cost items to be perceived as high-quality, irrespective of the actual level of quality delivered. A product or service is then seen, as one brand of lager once marketed itself, to be “reassuringly expensive”.
The Wyndham’s audience was led to believe that the fame of the cast guaranteed that the production would be of a commensurately high quality, an assumption reinforced by the high price paid for the privilege of seeing it.
But it did not take very long after curtain up for the falsity of this equation to become apparent.
Catherine Tate is a comedian. Much Ado About Nothing is a comedy. Therefore a comedian in a comic role in a comedy must be a sound option. It depends.
Tate played Beatrice as a one-dimensional sketch show grotesque. Her style of performance, honed through years of television sketch acting, was one that she found impossible to shake off. And, indeed, she may have had no incentive to do so.
She gurned and grimaced her way through her scenes as if television cameras were catching every detail for broadcast. Bluster and slow diction were deployed instead of lightness of touch and breezy confidence.
There were moments when she delivered some of the trickier Shakespearean verbal conundrums with a palpable sense of embarrassment at the opaqueness of the language. Like someone required for contractual reasons to say something they assume will be met with puzzled looks.
It was sobering to think how many genuinely talented actresses might have been better employed in the role, had this production gone through the normal casting process, rather than having Tate preinstalled as part of the package.
When a production of Much Ado has a Beatrice with almost as little substance as its Dogberry, then that production is in trouble.
It is possible to cast someone with mainly television experience in the role of Beatrice and coax a great performance out of them. Tamsin Greig came from nowhere and under Marianne Elliott’s direction won an Olivier Award for her Beatrice in the RSC’s 2006 production.
That can happen when an actor has greatness thrust upon them, when the performer feels that they have a mountain of effort to climb and that this effort is being expended in service of the play.
However, the impression given here was that the play was at the service of the cast. No more so than with David Tennant’s performance.
David Tennant can act. Anyone who saw his Hamlet would have understood that he can deliver the goods, particularly when stretched by working with equivalent or even superior talents.
When the RSC cast him as the Prince of Denmark they effectively put a gun against his head and whispered to him:
“Hi David, you’re about to step into theatrical history. You’re inheriting the mantle of a character passed down over four hundred years of acting history from Burbage through the ages to people like Gielgud, Olivier and now your good self. Whatever you do with the role will become part of that ongoing pageant. Screw it up and everyone look at you askance. For the rest of your career. So no pressure, and break a leg!”
The actor in this position feels the weight of history upon them and that pressure is a refining discipline.
As Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, David Tennant found himself in the opposite situation.
Although technically located on the stage, Tennant spent the entire performance crowdsurfing on an updraft of uncritical adulation wafting towards him from the stalls.
On the basis of nothing more than his celebrity status, he was given a separate entrance to Don Pedro and his party in the first scene.
While Don Pedro and his other soldiers marched onto the stage at the point indicated in the stage directions, Tennant’s Benedick arrived just before his first lines in the play, driving a golf buggy with its horn blaring.
Tennant played his part in the scene and during his closing lines manoeuvred the buggy to face the other way before driving off.
The audience burst into spontaneous applause. They did this simply because one of the cast had entered, spoken their lines and then exited without destroying the set.
With this level of admiration guaranteed, it was little wonder that his performance also operated at the level of a Comic Relief sketch.
What Tennant and Tate gave us were comedy types with no real heart.
Unlike in a normal production where actors are encouraged to explore their characters and get under their skin, there was little incentive for these performers, trading on their television fame, to go beyond their screen personas.
People had paid to see television stars and that underlay the principal cast’s approach to performance.
The job done properly requires actors to consider themselves as servants of the play, and not, as here, the masters of it.
The audience loved the performance. They applauded and whooped when Benedick finally kissed Beatrice. I was the only person in my row, in fact the only person in my field of vision, who did not give a standing ovation at the end.