Arrest Rylance

Much Ado About Nothing, Old Vic, 28 September 2013

This production was dreadful. So bad that at points I had to close my eyes because I could not bear to look at it. At the end I did not applaud because I was so stunned at its ineptitude. Leaving the Old Vic, I expected to see blue police tape cordoning it off so that the crime I had just witnessed could be investigated.

It really did look as if the director Mark Rylance had completely abandoned the project and the cast had been left to cobble together something themselves.

Though I had to admire James Earl Jones for puffing his way through his lines like The Little Engine That Could, Vanessa Redgrave recited her part with the casual neglect of someone who had already been paid and whose mind was definitely elsewhere.

By writing this much I have already devoted more thought to the production than evidently went into its making. Enough.

Crime scene

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Much ado about LAMDA

Much Ado About Nothing, Riverside Studios Studio 2, 4 December 2012

This lively LAMDA student production was directed by Janet Suzman. The stage was dominated by a large white screen at the back and a gantry running across the centre with a stairway leading down stage right. The plants and garden furniture indicated an outdoor setting and the production’s Edwardian feel evoked an atmosphere of genteel folk partaking of lemonade on the lawn.

The text was mildly edited. Most notably Beatrice’s “curst cow horns” sequence was cut from 2.1, while in 2.3 the phrase “I am a Jew” was retained. This was possibly Janet Suzman making a point about her own lack of offence at this historical prejudice.

It was the character of Beatrice, played by Holly Augustine, who became the main focus of interest due to Holly’s imposing physical presence. A healthy 5’10” and with great strength of voice, she made the most of her first appearance standing high up on the gantry, standing by an easel in a summer dress and sun hat.

This meant that her first imperious question about “Signior Mountanto” returning from the wars, literally descended from on high. She delivered many of her subsequent barbs with a fixed smile and deliberately batted eyelids.

She tended to dominate any action to which she contributed.

Her counterpart Benedick, played by Ryan Donaldson, was 6’4”, tall enough to tower over Beatrice, so that the pair were literally the biggest characters in the production. He sported a goatee beard and moustache, ripe for shaving off later in performance.

Leonard Cook’s Don Pedro was portly with a slightly receding hairline that made him look older than his 21 years.

Don John (Will Richards) was sullen but not particularly villainous. He was more preening than demonic. Although lacking in anger and bitterness, he did show aggression towards Borachio (Victor Ade) holding him down and threatening him to force him to reveal his news in 1.3.

Conrade, played by Frenchman Guy Remy, retained that actor’s French accent for some reason. It seemed rather odd for that particular element of Mediterranean colour to be added to an otherwise completely English rendering of the story.

The two gulling scenes were handled plainly but entertainingly. With invented character Belfiore (Lauren Trickett) singing below, Benedick appeared on the gantry and called out to the ‘Boy’ but then saw that the singer was a woman. He sent her to fetch his book, but this volume was not subsequently delivered at a comically inopportune moment.

On the arrival of the gullers, Benedick hid behind some pot plants on a platform at the stage right end of the gantry. He did little more than pop his head up between the plants to indicate his surprise, rather than make a complex, comical tour of the set.

In fact the real comedy in this sequence came from an unexpected quarter.

Balthasar (Richard Baker) played piano, but Belfiore took over his lines at “Note this before my notes…” and proceeded to sing Sigh No More in Latin and English, belting it out tunelessly, her hands clasped in front of her like a hopeless talent show contestant. The onstage audience was repelled by the discordant sound, and Benedick’s comment about the “howling of dogs” was indeed accurate.

At the end of the sequence, Benedick descended from the gantry and told us of his astonishment. When Beatrice came to fetch him to dinner he lay seductively on one of the benches and purred at her.

For her own gulling scene, Beatrice enter running “close by the ground” like a lapwing, flapping her unfastened top garment like a pair of little wings, before hiding under the stage right stairs. Hero (Katherine Carlton), Margaret (Jenny Boyd) and Ursula (Chloe O’Connor) stood above her on the gantry and weaved their web of deception while twirling their parasols.

Like Benedick, Beatrice also remained motionless and her interaction with the gullers did not involve any intricacies of staging.

Barbed

For some reason Hero’s criticism of Beatrice’s “disdain and scorn” was quite angry and barbed. She looked towards Beatrice, directing her shouts at her almost as if she did not care if she were discovered.

Having fallen for the idea that Beatrice loved him, Benedick appeared with his moustache and goatee removed, but tried to disguise his freshly-shaven features by wrapping a barber’s cloth around his face and then over his head, as if it were a bandage for the toothache from which he claimed to be suffering. But the cloth was eventually pulled away so that Leonato (James Bailey), Don Pedro and Claudio (Daniel Abbott) could make fun of his bare chin and the uncharacteristic vanity it signified.

Don Pedro mocked Benedick, adopting the accents and gestures of the Dutchman, Frenchman, German and Spaniard he referenced.

Don John appeared on the gantry to hint at, then impart, the bad news of Hero’s unfaithfulness. As in the Globe’s 2011 production, Don John addressed the “So will you say when you have seen the sequel” line directly at the audience, not at his fellow characters, but without having wound us up to boo him. The audience did not react to this provocation.

The watch is often a comic highlight of any production. When the citizen’s patrol was introduced in 3.3, Dogberry (Ian Davidson) wore an officious uniform complete with a cap and oversaw Oatcake (Leonard Cook again) who was bumbling and sleepy.

But the most entertaining and downright laugh-out-loud moments in the watch sequences, and in the production overall, were the unforgettable appearances by an excellent dotard Verges: a truly show-stealing performance by a heavily made-up Lauren Trickett.

She played Verges as a bearded, senile koala-like creature, constantly befuddled and slow, forever looking the wrong way as his fellows speeded in the opposite direction.

His tongue peeped out of his mouth and curled up at the end like an ancient tortoise. As events and people repeatedly overtook him, he would utter a feeble ‘oh’.

He managed to be funnier than Dogberry’s malapropisms and pride, simply by standing around and looking confused.

However, Oatcake had a moment of physical comedy. In 4.2, the Sexton (Chloe O’Connor again) instructed Dogberry to call forth the watchmen to accuse Borachio and Conrade. Oatcake was fast asleep and was woken by Borachio. Starting from his slumber, he grabbed a pike and wheeled it around in a semi-daze, almost taking people’s heads off.

The rejection of Hero in 4.1 was interesting for reasons other than the immediate shock of seeing the hapless bride-to-be thrown to the ground by Claudio.

Beatrice saw Hero’s distress, hesitantly moved towards her, but only took the initiative after Hero had fainted. She comforted and hugged her friend as she lay on the ground unconscious.

As Katherine Carlton’s Hero was only 5’, the 10 inch height difference with Beatrice made her helper look almost like her mother. At a subliminal level the staging offered the interesting possibility that this might have been the case.

The audience laughed at Beatrice’s request that Benedick “kill Claudio”. But if there was any doubt about her earnestness, her follow-up “You kill me to deny it. Farewell.” was curt and brusque in a way that underscored the force of the original demand.

Benedick and Beatrice’s rapprochement in 5.2 began with Benedick practising his singing. Acting on the impressions created by their respective gullers, the pair found themselves sat on a bench and sidled closer to one another during their love talk.

At Benedick’s exhortation to “Serve God, love me and mend”, they drew close on the verge of a romantic kiss. But just before their lips met, Ursula interrupted them with the news that the accusation against Hero had proved false.

The missed kiss was a fitting precursor to Benedick’s final “I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be buried in thy eyes” which now seemed to be a continuation of their previously expressed sentiment.

In a very moving 5.3, Claudio sang at Hero’s torchlit monument represented by a marble block. The torches were ceremoniously doused at the end.

The second wedding saw Claudio and Hero reunited. Beatrice unveiled herself, but had gone cool on Benedick. Their love poems were produced, which they read apart, before Benedick stopped her mouth with a kiss. Don Pedro sulked at the back until Benedick brought him forward, telling him to get a wife. In this general air of jollity, the performance ended with a jig to great applause.

Conclusions

LAMDA give away tickets to their student performances for free, but request donations at the end. This is eminently fair because you can pay exactly what you think the performance was worth.

And in this case, the impression made on the audience undoubtedly meant that they earned more from these voluntary donations than from the price usually charged for a production of this scale.

Much ado about India

Much Ado About Nothing, Courtyard Stratford, 11 August 2012

The audience was introduced to the world of the production before setting foot in the auditorium. The foyer of the theatre was festooned with Indian posters, packaging, bicycles and assorted paraphernalia with the intermittent sound of enthusiastic car horns completing the impression of a crowded Indian city.

Once inside, they were greeted by the sight of the yellow-washed exterior of a large house in front of which stood a huge tree whose top branches spread underneath the flies.

Some of the cast milled about the stage before the start engaging with the audience. It fell to Dogberry (Simon Nagra) to request in broken English that phones be switched off.

The authentic localising detail and humour created a thrilling atmosphere of expectation. Leonato (Madhav Sharma) entered in modern Indian dress through the centre aisle with his informative letter. Eyes fixed on Meera Syal’s Beatrice as the moment of her first speech drew closer.

It was therefore a great disappointment to find Meera Syal talking through gritted teeth, deploying a basic set of sitcom grimaces. Depriving Beatrice of dimension, she seemed to be treading the same path as that other mediocre Beatrice delivered by Catherine Tate the previous year in London.

The rest of cast stood motionless raising the terrifying prospect of the following three hours consisting of static blocking and sitcom-level acting.

But all was not lost. A flash of creative intelligence and sensitivity soon provided comfort. Don Pedro’s (Shiv Grewal) Indian army soldiers entered in UN peacekeeper uniforms. Given the contemporary, modern dress setting, the only conflict from which the Indian army could be returning would be Kashmir, implying military action against Pakistan. Given the inclusive nature of the cast and general air of peaceful good vibes, making these soldiers UN peacekeepers avoided possible accusations of insensitivity.

The first meeting between Benedick (Paul Bhattacharjee) and Beatrice was still firmly in sitcom mode. The bald Don John (Gary Pillai) made a moderate impact. Claudio (Sagar Arya) seemed suitably earnest in conversation with the slightly greying Benedick. But so far the production had not really found its feet or taken off. However, Benedick did raise a titter describing himself as “Bendy Dick the married man”.

For some reason Meera’s Beatrice improved remarkably in the second act. Gone were the gritted teeth and grimacing as her voice returned to normal (2.1). The women entered wearing berets and army jackets which they had acquired as disguises to wear at the ball. This indicated that they had already been fraternising with the returning soldiers.

Beatrice referred to herself as a maid: the ensuing snigger from Margaret (Chetna Pandya) prompted an “Oi!” of jokey admonishment from Beatrice. Her sarcastic impression of dutiful Hero (Amara Karan) added to the fun atmosphere.

The text was altered so that Beatrice saw a temple, rather than a church, by daylight. But subsequent instances showed that the rewriting of the cultural context was inconsistent.

Everyone cross-dressed at the ball; the women wore their military uniforms with mannish affectations, while the men covered their heads with shawls displaying exaggerated female coyness. Pairs of characters exchanged garlands. When it was Benedick and Beatrice’s turn, they did so sheepishly, hinting at the possibility of the mutual attraction underlying their bickering.

The comedy of the dance sequence contained some funny moments. Margaret made a lewd gesture when speaking to Balthasar (Raj Bajaj) of her “ill qualities” suggesting her availability. Verges (Bharit Patel), a character merged with that of Ursula, caught up with Antonio (Ernest Ignatius) hiding at the edge of the stage and broke out of her manly disguise to accost him.

Having been taunted by Don John and Borachio (Kulvinder Ghir) with the idea that Don Pedro had wooed Hero for himself, the idea was further reinforced when Don Pedro appeared with his arm around Hero as if intimate with her.

When Don Pedro explained what had actually happened, Claudio remained suitably silent.

Meera Syal continued to impress with her moving delivery of “but then there was a star danced, and under that was I born.” From this point on there was no question over the quality of her performance.

Borachio explained to Don John precisely how he could arrange for Hero to appear unfaithful (2.2). He dry humped Don John when explaining what he would appear to be doing with Margaret.

Inventive

The two gulling scenes are the comic highlights of any Much Ado and this production did not disappoint, even managing to be daringly inventive.

Benedick called on a maid rather than a boy to fetch his book before sitting on a swing hung from the tree to pitch slowly back and forth (2.3).

The maid heartily joined in a Bhangra version of Sigh No More as Benedick climbed the tree to access the balcony and then listened from the top of house. After trying unsuccessfully to give the book to Benedick, the Maid was drawn into the action so that she acted Beatrice’s pretended part in the gullers’ account, describing her purported love for Benedick.

Despite its attempts to rewrite the cultural context of the play, the production kept the phrase “Christian-like fear” in this scene, which must have defied attempts at rewriting.

The Maid threw herself into this role with gusto as she cried and beat the ground in a simulation of Beatrice’s supposed frustration. When she cried “O sweet Benedick” the man himself cried out “Beatrice” from above, but was not noticed.

When Beatrice delivered the dinner invitation she began to say “I am sent…” but her voice trailed off when she saw Benedick’s peculiarly attentive way of looking at her. For some odd reason his “If I do not love her, I am a Jew” was retained.

The sequence involving Beatrice was particularly ingenious (3.1). Beatrice was ushered in by Margaret and sat at the bottom of the tree with a towel round her head and depilatory cream on her upper lip. She then overheard Verges using the speakerphone on her mobile to have a conversation with Hero (visible within the house) about Benedick’s hidden love for Beatrice.

Beatrice did not remain out of sight, but instead caught Verges’ eye, making it plain that she understood the tenor of the discussion. The embarrassed Verges began to defend Beatrice to Hero, using the phrase “O, do not your cousin such a wrong” effectively changing sides. This was a remarkable use of the original text which was able to slot perfectly into this most unusual reading of the situation.

Verges’ “I pray you, be not angry with me, madam” was said to Beatrice and not Hero, communicating Verges’ sudden guilt at the discovery of their subterfuge. Beatrice then gestured at Verges to be critical of Hero, so she asked her “When are you married, madam?” in an supercilious tone.

Once the game was over, Beatrice wiped the cream from her lip and removed the towel from her head, looking extremely crestfallen at the realisation of how she was seen.

Benedick sported a new look wearing a green dressing gown with his hair dyed, all of which made him almost unrecognisable (3.2). His remade image fully justified Leonato’s comment “He looks younger than he did”.

Don John’s reveal of Hero’s unfaithfulness was very snide. Claudio jostled him, prompting Don John’s retort “So will you say when you have seen the sequel”, implying that Claudio would be angry when he knew the truth. After this, the interval came.

The second half began with Beatrice singing a soulful version of Sigh No More, first in Hindi and then in English (3.3).

The watch, including George Seacole (Rudi Dharmalingam) and Hugh Oatcake (Muzz Khan) wore comical hats and were led by Dogberry who put a hard “k” at the start of “knave” so that he pronounced it “ker-nave”. He pointed a torch at the audience scanning for a thief and scared the watch into attacking him when he returned unexpectedly to have his “one word more”.

Rain fell as Borachio told Conrade (Neil D’Souza) about his profitable skulduggery. The watch observed the pair at a distance while one of them approached and held an umbrella over Borachio undetected. So perfect was this watchman’s invisibility that Borachio urinated over him when caught short.

Finally challenged by the watch, Borachio and Conrade were so drunk that they surrendered without a fight.

Hero and Margaret sat under the tree on a platform which had been introduced for the second half, preparing for Hero’s wedding day (3.4). The scene was interrupted as the platform went dark making way for the scene between Leonato and Dogberry on the main part of the stage (3.5). Dogberry gold-plated his malapropism by mispronouncing it “con-fie-dence”. Don John watched this all the while from the gallery.

Wedding

Hero’s wedding saw the theatre transformed (4.1). Strings of lights festooned the galleries, and everything glowed with the full colour of a Hindi wedding. Three couples were brought from the audience to sit on cushions to fill out the number of guests on stage. Music played and the whole audience was encouraged to clap along.

The entry of the bride was a breathtaking moment. Hero appeared in a splendid dress looking like a princess. A Panditji (Robert Mountford), the production’s Indian priest, began to perform the wedding ceremony. A handheld microphone was passed around to those speaking to amplify their voices.

Claudio took the microphone and spoke into it to reject Hero. The devastating impact of his words on the sumptuous ceremony meant that there was no need for him to throw her to the ground: she looked totally discarded anyway, the tears in her eyes contrasting with the splendour of her surroundings.

The build-up to the wedding had been made as protracted, colourful and joyous as possible so that its unravelling would feel all the more devastating. The implosion of this scene powered the rest of the second half with all the characters being carried along in its blast wave.

Don John sat nearest to Hero, looking on, like a venomous spider at the centre of a web. Leonato mistook Claudio’s initial objection for a confession that he had already slept with Hero and was quite funny and pally trying to convince him that this was not an obstacle. Tellingly, Benedick’s joke “This looks not like a nuptial” was cut to remove any humour that might deflate the sense of disaster.

Leonato’s fury at Hero was restrained. He brought his hand close to her, but the gesture was weak and did not look really threatening. But he seemed determined to vent his anger at someone.

In wake of Claudio’s bombshell, Beatrice and Benedick drew together as she placed her head in his lap overcome with shock. Only the Panditji offered a calm perspective and eventually proposed a solution.

Beatrice and Benedick sat close on the swing. Her demand that Benedict kill Claudio got a laugh, but the line was delivered in all seriousness and should have been greeted by gasps.

The earnestness of her request was underlined by the way she tussled with him when saying that Claudio was her enemy, and by the depth of feeling behind her desire to “eat his heart in the market-place”.

Dogberry brought together his “dissembly” in front of the Sexton (Peter Singh) (4.2). Borachio and Conrade were presented tied back to back, the awkwardness of which resulted in them ending up one on top of the other when presented to the Sexton on the platform. The accused men looked gutted on hearing of Hero’s death.

Leonato caught up with Don Pedro and Claudio as they were leaving his house with their kitbags in uniform (5.1). Despite Leonato presenting a very good impression of an angry man, Claudio was not fazed by his aggression.

Benedick, on the other hand, posed a more serious threat. He was very serious about his challenge to Claudio and had considerably manned-up. This transformation is difficult to get right if Benedick has up to now been portrayed as a clownish figure.

Dogberry brought in Borachio and Conrade while Leonato and Antonio entered down the centre aisle to see Borachio. Don Pedro and Claudio faced away from Borachio, but Leonato stood between them “a pair of honourable men” and accused them of being jointly responsible for the tragedy, prompting them to turn around.

Benedick sung tunelessly to Margaret before his romantic encounter with Beatrice (5.2). Beatrice possessed some of her former sharpness. They sat on the swing as he held her hand asking her to “Serve God, love me and mend”. The comedy of Benedick’s enthusiasm to be, among other things, buried in Beatrice’s eyes, was subdued in keeping with the increasing seriousness of their attachment.

The production’s coup de théâtre involved the set, which had hitherto represented the façade of a house, folding back to reveal a burning funeral pyre underneath a tower structure, possibly attached to a temple, on which Hero had apparently been cremated (5.3).

Mourners stood around looking sombre under their umbrellas in the rain, including a distraught Claudio who read aloud his praises. The song “Pardon, goddess of the night” was sung by someone else on top of the tower above the pyre.

The action remained at the temple for the second wedding (5.4). Women entered from upstage under veils. Hero was unmasked but Claudio’s surprise at seeing her again after her cremation was strangely muted.

When Benedick enquired which of the veiled women was Beatrice, she realised what he was planning, turned and ran away. But she was swiftly brought back, in all likelihood quite willingly. Letters were produced so that each could read proof that the other loved them.

Leonato said “Peace! I will stop your mouth” and brought them together to kiss. This was as per the Quarto text and Arden 3, but still very unusual to see.

The performance concluded with lively dancing continuing the festive atmosphere.

Conclusions

Plays become classics by transcending their culture of origin and are therefore able to slip free from all subsequently imposed cultural contexts.

This production demonstrated how a cultural relocation can easily be trumped and overshadowed by the genius of the play itself. It came as no surprise that this love story could survive relocation to India. After a while the Indian setting took second place to situation and character.

But only up to a point. Hero’s rejection exploded like a bombshell amid a gloriously beautiful wedding scene, giving that moment a traumatic power that most productions rarely achieve. The aftershock reverberated through the remainder of play. This effect could have been achieved in a number of ways but it fell to this Indian adaptation to demonstrate that the bigger the build-up to the wedding, the starker the impact of its interruption.

Much Ado About Nothing – Globe to Globe

Much Ado About Nothing, The Globe, 1 June 2012

Beaucoup de Bruit Pour Rien began with a very drunk Borachio (François de Brauer) sweeping the stage with a broom. The audience quietened in anticipation of the play, but was rewarded with nothing more than Borachio’s bemused expression at the hush he had caused.

But there was not long to wait before the action got underway with Leonato (Jean-Claude Jay) talking on a mobile phone, hearing of the arrival of Don Pedro (Matthieu Marie). Beatrice (Alix Poisson) grabbed the phone from his hands to talk to the informant and asked whether Benedick (Bruno Blairet) had returned from the wars.

On her first appearance, Beatrice wore trousers, her hair was short and dark, and she smoked a pipe. This made her look almost but not quite like a 1920s lesbian. Her sarcastic barbs were delivered in a quirky voice and with exaggerated gestures.

This was an interesting way of portraying her, because it seemed to imply that her disdain for romantic love was the result of a lack of femininity. No aspersions were cast on Benedick’s manliness for displaying an analogous attitude to women.

Benedick was first seen sporting a matador jacket, kilt and a long wispy goatee.

The sartorial distinctiveness of Beatrice and Benedick was the product of a creative energy that also fuelled their furious clash of wits. But the fact that they shared this distinctiveness also hinted at the similarity of temperament that would ultimately unite them.

Don John’s (Nicolas Chupin) long dark coat matched his grim expression and ponytail. When plotting with Borachio he looked up mockingly at the balcony where people had gathered for a party and raged with such anger that he ran at the audience.

Claudio (Laurent Menoret) was tall, bald and in conversation with Benedick broke into song to make his declaration of love for Hero, which the audience applauded.

Beatrice continued to be on good form before the ball, clowning her way through her moan about leading apes in hell and performing a mocking impression of Hero’s (Suzanne Aubert) alleged submissiveness.

At the ball itself the couples danced in pairs wearing skull facemasks, with the speaking couple coming downstage for their dialogue. Antonio (Raphael Almosni) was a priest, which made Margaret (Aurélie Toucas) rubbing herself against him quite comical.

When it was Beatrice and Benedick’s turn to take centre stage, they faced forward and talked while performing side-steps in step with each other. However, her withering putdown of Benedick caused him to falter and became out of step.

Don Pedro assured Claudio that he had wooed Hero on his behalf. Interestingly, his metaphor about making a bird sing and restoring it to its rightful owner was spoken in Hero’s presence, which prompted her to flap her hands and twitter sarcastically. This indicated that some of Beatrice’s barbed sense of humour had rubbed off on her.

The gulling scenes saw Benedick and Beatrice using the stage pillars to hide from their taunters. Margaret and Hero praised Benedick by imagining having sex with him and faking loud orgasms.

Thinking Beatrice to be in love with him, Benedick smartened himself up. Continuing the Scottish theme, he wore tartan trousers and a faint trace of face paint. He tried to hide his newly shaved chin behind his hands. But Don Pedro put a glass of water on Benedick’s head, then dropped it, so that Benedick’s instinctive reflex to catch the glass caused him to reveal the results of his shaving.

Dogberry (Raphael Almosni again) made a big impression on his first appearance up through the trap door. The brightness of his yellow helmet complemented the exaggerated aggression of his movements and his wild staring eyes.

Borachio simply walked up to Dogberry and Verges (Nicolas Chupin again) and explained how he had tricked Claudio into believing that Hero had been unfaithful, and he was detained below the trap.

Beatrice, now wearing a feminine dress, helped Hero on the morning of her wedding. The pair looked into an imaginary mirror at the edge of the stage.

Dogberry and Verges caught up with Leonato. The first French Dogberryism provided some mirth for the francophones in the audience. He told Leonato of “une confidence qui vous consterne de près”.

This particular French Dogberryism was more apt that its English original. Whereas the English version has Leonato partaking of a confidence that discerns him nearly, in French Leonato becomes “consterné” or “dismayed”, which turned out to be an understatement.

The wedding itself took place immediately after the interval. Margaret sang at the start of the ceremony. Claudio dressed all in white, briskly but gently cast Hero aside before denouncing her, whereupon she fainted. Hero left her gloves on the ground, giving Benedick the opportunity to pick one of them up.

The staging provided a very powerful image of Leonato stood over Hero with a dagger in his hand on the point of committing an honour killing.

Beatrice also cut a strong figure standing downstage right and looking out at audience to request of Benedick “Tue Claudio”.

Dogberry and his “dissemblé” informed us that he and his men had “contrebandé” [smuggled] an offender. He was very put out to be described as “un âne” and asked whether Borachio had “suspect pour moi”. The poor officer of the watch was so distraught at the end of the scene that he hugged some of the groundlings to console himself.

A saxophonist up in the gallery played a doleful tune as Leonato expressed his sadness at the fate of his daughter. In keeping with his calm, poetic nature, Claudio had no sword to offer violence when challenged by Benedick, who entered with Hero’s glove on the hilt of his sword.

Later, Benedick entered through the yard trying to write a poem. After trying out some odd rhymes, news of Hero’s innocence was conveyed by Margaret from the middle gallery.

Don Pedro’s plan came to fruition as Beatrice and Benedick skirted round the topic of their affection for each other. Beatrice at first confessed and then backtracked on her love for him. But Benedick was single-mindedly and comically effusive in his protestations of undying love when saying he would follow her to see her uncle.

After a brief scene in which Claudio sang his words of remorse on the balcony before Hero’s tomb, the performance moved to its conclusion with the masked wedding.

Hero showed more of her rebellious spirit, symptomatic of Beatrice’s influence, when she was unmasked. She tussled briefly with Claudio in frustration that he had believed her capable of infidelity.

The long-overdue kiss between Beatrice and Benedick sealed their relationship. Benedick embraced her strongly enabling the enraptured Beatrice to lift her feet from the ground.

Don Pedro was told to get himself a wife as he left through yard, and the performance ended with a joyous dance.

This Compagnie Hypermobile production took a slightly quirky Beatrice and turned her into a marriageable woman, which had faint traces of The Taming of the Shrew. However, if Beatrice was in any way tamed into marrying Benedict, we had at least some consolation in seeing some of Beatrice’s fight rub off on Hero, who did not meekly accept Claudio’s mistrust.

We can be Heroes

Much Ado Scratch Night, Rich Mix London, 3 March 2012

A new theatrical experiment from Arne Pohlmeier of Two Gents productions, renowned for its Vakomana Vaviri ve Zimbabwe and Kupenga Kwa Hamlet, was always going to be an attractive proposition.

A cut-down, two-handed performance of Much Ado About Nothing sounded intriguing. The five-pound ticket price clinched the deal conclusively.

An extra row of seating had to be put out because of unexpectedly high demand, which also boded well.

The performance area of the studio theatre contained just four white chairs. The lights illuminating them soon dimmed and voices off spoke the dialogue in which Benedick repudiates marriage, telling Don Pedro that he has no intention of being labelled “Benedick, the married man.”

After this scene setting the actors appeared from the side, beginning at the beginning with “I learn in this letter…”. They continued in a whir of words and motion without interval to the end of the story just over an hour later.

All the parts were played by Arne Pohlmeier and Emily Wallis with movement work by Yukiko Masui, which was intended to accentuate character delineation. The text was filleted down to create a run time of just over an hour. It contained the bare bones of the structure including the Hero/Claudio subplot. The skilful editing meant that nothing vital went missing.

This performance marked director Arne’s acting debut. Consequently there was a disparity between his technique and Emily’s more expert use of voice and movement. The differentiation of her characters, from Beatrice (a quick mincing walk), Hero (hands clasped in front chastely) and Claudio (hand stuck in front pocket) and Borachio (lolling drunkard) was clearer than Arne’s, who managed to adopt Hero’s hand clasp, but little else.

More work is needed to get them operating on the same level. But given that what we saw was the result of just two weeks’ rehearsal, the overall quality was impressive. In particular, they had managed to mark the transition between scenes by stepping out of performance mode into quiet passivity before launching into the next one.

With just two performers the action was necessarily very fluid, which meant that audience attention was constantly focused. Over just 70 minutes, this is quite easy to maintain.

The audience also found themselves involved in the action, representing silent characters to which the pair could then refer.

The one stand-out scene was Claudio’s rejection of Hero, which worked really well. All the key elements in the production came together to produce a gripping result.

This being a work-in-progress, some lines were forgot and the cast occasionally read from crib sheets. But at this stage no one was expecting perfection. Both performers built up such a level of credit with the audience that minor faults did nothing to detract from the enjoyment.

However, familiarity with the play was an advantage. This would not have been an ideal introduction to the play for anyone who had not seen it before.

Feedback session Q&A

After the performance the audience was invited to a feedback session in a neighbouring room. The fact that once again more chairs were needed, this time to accommodate those with things to say about what we had just seen, heralded what followed: the feedback was universally positive, leaving Arne Pohlmeier with a beaming grin as he noted down the words of praise.

The cast also had questions for the audience. Emily was concerned that long speeches with little action would put the audience off. But in a small studio space the audience feels individually addressed and engaged by a single performer talking in soliloquy.

There was agreement that it was good to hear the text spoken clearly with a minimum of distraction and that when this was done well, it could override any lack of clarity regarding plot and character. However, it was felt that more distinction between characters was needed.

It is always exciting to see a project in the earliest stages of its development. The next stage of this one is eagerly anticipated.

Hero’s watery crash pad

Much Ado About Nothing, The Globe, 2 September 2011

A third and (sadly) final look at this great Globe production helped to explain an odd feature that had proved puzzling on the first two views.

After Dogberry had spoken with Leonato in 3.5, his assistant Verges suddenly fainted. Dogberry tried to revive him. He fetched water from a pond cupped in his hands, but it all drained away.

He tried to drag the huge Verges towards the water, but he was too heavy. He then used his hat to collect water and threw it all over his colleague. Verges awoke and swam backstroke on the wet stage in response to the drenching.

This amusing comic interlude is not in the text. And although it was very funny in performance, it did seem to have been slotted into the production for no particular reason. It came from nowhere and led nowhere.

Viewed from the galleries, however, the purpose of the watery fun and games became apparent.

The next scene saw the rejection of Hero on her wedding day by Claudio. The bride-to-be was cast aside as Claudio’s anger boiled over at the apparent infidelity of his beloved.

The enraged bridegroom threw Hero to the ground so that she landed precisely in the centre of the wet zone, something not immediately apparent when seen from yard level.

The water spilt liberally over the centre of the stage by Dogberry meant that Hero could slide comfortably across the stage to a dignified halt. Without the water the rough surface of the Globe’s boards would have caught on her dress bringing her to an abrupt and uncomfortable stop.

This whole slapstick sequence had been deliberately engineered to make Hero’s dramatic crash a safe one.

The other feature of note at this performance was that the packed Globe auditorium did not seem much inclined to hiss at Don John.

I did my best to start the ball rolling early on, which led some in the yard to look up and stare at the one-man hissing machine in the middle gallery.

This was surely one of the few occasions in the Globe’s performance history where the yard was more taciturn than the posh seats.

The Respect Agenda

Much Ado About Nothing, The Globe, 21 July 2011

A second look at the Globe’s Much Ado (soon to be followed by a very necessary third view) provided another example of cast bravery in the face of torrential rain besides that recently displayed on a very wet Sunday by the cast of All’s Well.

The weather was fine up until the interval, but in the second half, just around the point where Hero was rejected at the altar, the rain bucketed down with such intensity that the cast looked up at the sky in wonder.

The staging required the Sexton to sit on a stool far beyond the protection of the heavens. He looked at the spot where he was supposed to sit with his ledger, saw it being scoured by the downpour and reluctantly sat under the torrent. A wave of sympathy went out to him both from the audience and the cast under the canopy.

Eve Best, whose Beatrice was perhaps the production’s main attraction, had a superb moment where she turned meteorological adversity into theatrical greatness.

As she raged against Claudio and his despicable treatment of Hero, she rushed to the front of the stage and, countering the storm with some storming of her own, punched the air screaming “I would eat his heart in the market-place”.

The furious passion of her speech, made even more dramatic by being delivered in the teeth of torrential rain, drew loud cheers from the audience.

This performance also provided an example of an unfortunate downside of the Globe yard: noisy spectators.

The Globe is a theatre and also, by dint of its location on the Southbank, a tourist attraction. The absurdly cheap £5 yard tickets, while a boon for the majority, foster an attitude among an element of the audience that the theatre is a trifling, low-cost amusement rather than a serious theatrical undertaking.

On this occasion a tourist from western Europe, who had previously drawn attention to himself by trying to jump the queue into the yard, insisted on talking loudly almost continuously through the performance. Cast members occasionally went to the side of the stage nearest to his location and shouted their lines at him in attempt to snap him out of his conversation.

But the most galling part was when he decided that the performance was of so little interest to him and his chat with his friend of such greater importance that he attempted to talk over the top of the cast, drowning out the performance like it was extraneous noise.

It takes all sorts. But a rise in the price of the Globe’s dirt cheap yard tickets could generate a greater degree of respect for the venue and the valuable, high-quality work it produces.

Carry on Messina

Much Ado About Nothing, The Globe, 2 July 2011

It was a sight almost impossible to behold without cracking a smile. The Globe stage, extended out into the yard along most of its width, looked extremely pretty with its water pools, flowers and overarching orange branches. Real birds singing under the heavens added a realistic touch that made the wait for the play to start very relaxing.

If the intention had been to create a laid-back Mediterranean feel, then it had succeeded.

The performance began with a messenger entering on the stage right walkway and handing a letter to Ursula, who was washing clothes in one of the pools. She took the letter through the centre doors to Leonato offstage, who then entered announcing its contents.

Beatrice and Hero looked concerned at what the arrival of Don Pedro might herald. But Leonato emphasised the words “A victory” in his third speech, causing the two women to rejoice at the news. Beatrice, looking relaxed with a sun hat hanging nonchalantly on her back, had her arm around Hero indicating their closeness. She sipped occasionally at drinks served with straws emphasising the leisurely pace of life at Leonato’s house.

Eve Best’s Beatrice was witty, confident and inwardly content. Her word play turning “a good soldier too, lady” into “a good soldier to a lady” and the slightly ribald joking about “stuffing” showed her to have a good sense of humour, but a generous rather than a bitter one. She moved around the stage and dominated the first scene both physically and verbally.

Don Pedro’s soldiers entered on the stage left walkway. Attention naturally focused on Benedick, who seemed quite affable.

When the argument between Beatrice and Benedick began, the pair went off to opposite corners downstage. Their first exchanges were lengthy and conveyed complex ideas.

Then the dispute rapidly shifted gear. The exchanges became shorter and more quick-fire. As their words became more terse they met each other nose-to-nose centre stage.

There was nothing jovial about this part of the spat. It was, within the context of light-hearted romantic comedy, a quite scary exchange of words.

Beatrice exited shaking her skirt causing Benedick to cough as if choked by the dust thrown off.

Don Pedro announced that he and his men were going to stay at Leonato’s house for at least a month, which caused Claudio to punch the air in victory and shout “Yes!” This indicated his happiness at having an extended opportunity to woo Hero.

Benedick talked with Claudio about Hero, but despite his earlier air punch, Claudio was unsure about how to proceed. His nerves were indicated by his constant twirling of a tassel on his doublet.

This production’s Hero was played by a black British woman. For reasons of sensitivity, Benedick’s reference to her being “too brown” was cut.

Benedick’s abhorrence at the concept of marriage was emphasised by his inability to even pronounce the word “husband” without choking on it.

These speeches in defence of his bachelor status must have been trotted out on many occasions before. He moved stage right to explain various instances of his thinking on the issue. When he got to the part about being put in a bottle and shot at like a cat, with the best archer being called “Adam”, they all mouthed along to his words as if wearily familiar with the sentiment.

Eavesdropping

Don Pedro talked with Claudio about his plan to woo Hero on Claudio’s behalf. Behind the grille of the centre doors we could see Borachio with an incense burner perfuming the room, as he would later describe to his accomplices. He overheard Don Pedro’s entire speech outlining the scheme.

We caught a brief glimpse of Antonio on the upper stage gallery. The old man’s head popped up long enough to hear Don Pedro mention his intended wooing of Hero (roughly 304-306), but not the part about acting on Claudio’s behalf. He left the gallery in disgust after eavesdropping on this brief snippet.

This neat staging demonstrated one of the readings of the play title: that the action revolved around “noting”, while also providing coherent grounds for why different rumours about Don Pedro were in circulation.

This then segued into 1.2 where we saw Antonio run to his brother Leonato to recount what he had just overheard. In the text Antonio refers to his information coming from a member of his staff, but here he bumbled over references to this being “overheard by a man of mine” as if hastily concealing his own espionage.

Our first extended look at Don John in 1.3 allowed him to talk at length about his seething discontent, cementing his black-hearted villainy firmly into our awareness.

Don John was a very interesting character within this production. He was portrayed as a bug-eyed Scottish sociopath dressed entirely in symbolic black. He managed to tread the border between menace and comic villainy without crossing over.

Borachio came with the news he had just overheard. Seizing on this opportunity for mischief, Don John asked him who was getting married. Borachio’s “your brother’s right hand” was accompanied by a wanking gesture indicating his disdain for Claudio. This nasty sentiment set the tone of villainy for the entire group of conspirators.

The start of act two offered the more pleasant sight of Beatrice and Hero relaxing with Leonato and Antonio.

Beatrice paddled her feet in a pool and jokingly moved her hands like gabbling mouths to mock the absent Benedick. When explaining her extended witticism about the curst cow being sent no horns, she wrapped a scarf around her head as if emphasising its lack of protuberances.

She pointed at Antonio as an example of a man with a beard who was “more than a youth” and not for her, but then pointed at a groundling as an exemplar of someone “less than a man”.

Beatrice immediately realised that she had made an insensitive faux pas. She held her hand in front of her mouth and apologised in embarrassment. This looked like Eve Best breaking out of character and apologising as herself to an audience member. But it was obviously a scripted part of the performance.

This was really clever because it exploited our impression that we were seeing the “real” Eve Best, insensitive and gaffe prone, and not her studied performance of the character of Beatrice, which was the only reality actually being presented to us.

She redeemed herself by pointing at men in the upper gallery when referring to sitting with the bachelors in heaven.

Party

Some of the centre boards on the stage extension were lifted and a fire lit in a shallow recess to set the scene for the party. The masked dancers revelled.

Margaret established an aspect of her character by flirting outrageously with Balthasar, eventually kneeling suggestively in front of his crotch. Antonio put on a French accent to evade detection by Ursula.

Crucially, Beatrice seemed to recognise Benedick as himself. If this was the case, then her willingness for him to hold her close as the spoke was very telling. They both faced the audience with Benedick stood tightly beside and behind her, their hands enmeshed.

Don John swooped on Claudio to dispense his bad news about Hero. Claudio was angry when concluding that he had been duped by Don Pedro. Benedick mirrored Claudio’s displeasure by being indignant at Beatrice’s labelling of him as “the prince’s fool”.

Arriving with Claudio in tow, Beatrice looked piteously as Benedick suddenly requested to be dispatched on a mission to some far flung place.

Don Pedro picked up on this continuing tension and suggested that Beatrice had lost Benedick’s heart. She responded to this with a tender speech, hinting at their past romantic involvement, saying that “he lent it me awhile”.

It took the presence of the orange branches hanging overhead for me to finally cotton on to Beatrice’s civil/Seville pun.

Claudio was dumbstruck to hear that Hero was actually his, requiring Beatrice to prompt him with his “cue”. He and Hero kissed to audience cheers.

In what looked like a repetition of Eve Best/Beatrice’s previous embarrassing moment with the groundling, she messed up her attempted flirt with Don Pedro. Beatrice’s denial that she was interested in him was too emphatic and dismissive, causing him to take offence and Beatrice to look mortified at suggesting he was not attractive. This ineptitude and gaucheness had touches of Miranda Hart about it, particularly when she snorted out a laugh like a gauche boarding school girl.

Describing the hour of her birth, Beatrice paused when getting to the poetic “but then there was a star danced” which made for a poignant moment.

Leonato sensed that she had dug herself into a hole and offered her a way out, asking to check up on some unspecified matters. His ensuing remark to Don Pedro that Beatrice “mocks all her wooers out of suit” was a reference to her dismissal of him.

Claudio was excited about his forthcoming marriage, which, Leonato reminded him, was a “sevennight” away.

Don Pedro conspired with the others to arrange for Beatrice and Benedick to be brought together.

Sinister

The brief scene 2.2 saw a more sinister plot being hatched with Borachio explaining to Don John how he would trick Claudio and the others into thinking that Hero had been unfaithful. The “term me ‘Claudio’” variant was used.

Benedick called on Margaret, not the Boy, to fetch a book for him at the start of 2.3. He took off his shoes and paddled in the stage left pool before hiding behind the stage left pillar as the gullers entered.

As Balthasar played “Sigh no more” Benedick slowly beat his head against the pillar in frustration at its romantic lyrics.

The gullers got into difficulties trying to make up stories for Benedick to overhear. Both Leonato and Don Pedro had problems, which were only resolved when Don Pedro cried out “How, how, I pray you?” whereupon they all went into a huddle and then broke out of it having ostensibly shared a secret as Don Pedro exclaimed “You amaze me!”

Benedick and his gullers swapped sides of the stage. He tried to overhear their conversation more closely by putting on a hat and using a hoe to pretend to be weeding the ground, shuffling ever closer to them.

At this point, Margaret re-entered with the book Benedick had requested. He tried to shoo her away, mouthing “fuck off” under his breath. This was done with sufficient clarity for the words to be clearly understood by the audience, who hooted with laughter.

By this time the gullers had moved back stage right. Margaret took Benedick’s hat as he returned stage left, which meant that the gullers suddenly caught sight of Margaret standing in the same position and in the same hat that Benedick had previously adopted.

Benedick climbed up a ladder stage left which was propped up against the pillar under some orange branches. The ladder was promptly taken away by the workers who had originally placed it there. He ended up with one foot in a loop of rope and one on the pillar. He let an orange fall to the ground as the gullers passed close beneath him.

After the gullers had gone he descended on the rope loop to the ground and moved centre stage to address the audience. He was convinced of the truth of what he heard to the effect that Beatrice secretly loved him.

Beatrice herself entered stage right with a large bell, one of the bells used at the Globe to announce the imminent start of a performance. She walked across the stage to where Benedick stood and rang the large bell very loudly close to him for some considerable time. The aggression in play here underscored that she had been sent on this errand against her will.

Benedick was comically inquisitorial when asking her if she took pleasure in the message. This was beginning of his attempt to read double meaning into her words.

Sheet

The gulling of Beatrice in 3.1 saw a washing line being hung between the two stage pillars and a single sheet folded across it. Beatrice ran onstage and hid behind it as Margaret and Ursula began to talk about her. She then pulled the sheet along the line to the other end. She peered over the top, and then after a while pulled it to the middle, at which point she hid under the fold in the sheet.

Beatrice heard the others criticise her character and huffed audibly with enough breath to make the sheet billow slightly.

At the end of this gulling, Beatrice emerged chastened by the criticism she had heard of herself. She went to the edge of the stage and singling out a female groundling, had a heart to heart moment with her, holding both her hands and then hugging her. It was as if her generalised address to the audience had become focused on one particular woman with whom she had a girly moment.

Benedick appeared for the next scene 3.2 with his shirt open to his chest, like a medallion man without a medallion, and with a small piece of paper over a recent shaving cut. Don Pedro, Claudio and Leonato teased him about alleged signs that he was in love.

When Don John appeared and began to set Claudio up to be duped, some in the audience began to hiss at him. The close bond between cast and audience in this Globe production meant that spontaneous reactions to onstage events were positively encouraged by the dynamics of the theatre space.

This coupled with Don John’s constant sneering, more or less guaranteed that he would be booed and hissed. His description of Claudio’s fiancée as “every man’s Hero” was a red rag to the groundling bull.

This effect was clearly one that the production had foreseen and was counting on. Because the staging had a response to the hissers.

Claudio and Don Pedro were willing to believe his version of events. They exited expressing their dismay and outrage. Don John watched them leave and his parting words to them “O plague right well prevented!” rhetorically matched what they had said.

He then remained onstage alone grimacing at the audience, who responded with more hisses.

The production played its masterstroke. Don John spoke his final sentence in the scene, one normally spoken to the others and not directly to the audience.

His scripted line directed mostly at us hissing groundlings was: “So will you say when you have seen the sequel.” He exited and the interval came.

Stunning

I was absolutely stunned at the brilliance of this: goading the audience into booing and hissing the villain and then using words in the text itself as a riposte. There were no intervals in the original performances, but it is possible that this line was used in a similar way and directed at the audience as a piece of pre-emptive writing.

The second half of the performance began on a comic note as Dogberry, a short man, entered with Verges, a very large man, inches behind him. Verges carried the watch’s lamp, holding it above and in front of Dogberry. Their coordinated steps and apparent fusion into a Dogberry/Verges creature drew instant laughs from the audience.

Dogberry punctuated his lines with nervous tics borrowed consciously from Carry On star Jack Douglas.

Seacoal entered via the stage right walkway when beckoned and was handed the lamp, causing Verges to look disconsolate. The audience saw his crestfallen expression and aahed in sympathy.

The whole watch lined up on stage for their instructions. One of them had a completely blank face which did not flicker when Dogberry waved his hand in front of it.

Another watchman interrupted Dogberry’s instructions to ask a series of questions. Each time he spoke, he placed his bill on his shoulder, stamped his foot and raised his hand. This repetitive sequence of movements became a running gag as each question was put.

Dogberry’s convoluted image involving a ewe, lamb and calf was spoken hesitantly as if he was making it up on the spot. Verges’ supportive comment about its sagacity was therefore very funny.

Dogberry and Verges exited briefly. On his return, Verges was carrying a lantern, one much larger than before. Dogberry reminded the watch to be “vigitant” and turning to exit banged his head on Verges’ lantern, staggering off in a zig-zag.

Shelter

Borachio was drunk when he entered with Conrade. Taking a swig from a hip flask, he spilt some liquid down his front, looked at it and encouraged Conrade to take shelter under the “penthouse” to escape the “rain”. As the watch tried to follow them, they circled the stage right pillar at close proximity without the two groups making contact.

As the watch looked on stage left, Borachio explained how he had tricked Claudio and the others. He performed a lewd mime to demonstrate what he had done with Margaret, culminating with a thrusting movement that caused drink to spurt suggestively out of his flask. Having seen Margaret’s flirtatiousness at the dance, we could believe what Borachio was illustrating.

The watch moved to arrest the pair, but at first they simply laughed at the comical bunglers. The intervention of the more determined Dogberry and Verges allowed the watch to overpower them.

Dogberry was holding a very small lantern and he eyed Verges’ larger one jealously. He made his companion take the smaller one and kept the larger for himself, clutching it to his chest. After a brief instant, Dogberry screamed as the hot lantern began to burn him.

Hero prepared for her wedding at the start of 3.4, assisted by Margaret and Ursula. She wore a tire decked with flowers. She was nervously insecure at the mention of the Duchess of Milan’s gown and her “O, that exceeds, they say” was fretful rather than congratulatory. Hero obviously had a bad case of pre-wedding nerves.

Beatrice appeared stage left carrying a pillow and snuffling with a cold. Her pronunciation of “H”, the letter than began hawk, horse and husband was “Ach” expressing a degree of contempt for the idea of being sick for a husband.

Standing stage right, Beatrice responded strongly to Margaret’s provocative mention of the “benedictus” cure.

Ursula came to fetch Hero to the church and after a short delay Hero screamed hysterically as the reality of the situation caught up with her.

Dogberry and Verges prepared to talk to Leonato (3.5) by practising a mendicant bow in proffering a hand to receive a reward.

At first Dogberry talked to the door, but soon realised that Leonato was addressing him from the gallery above. The old man was busy with the wedding preparations, but eventually came down to stage level to talk to the two watchmen.

Leonato quickly dealt with their news by telling the men to examine the “aspicious persons” themselves.

Verges fainted after Leonato went in, presumably with the tension of meeting such an important person. Dogberry tried to revive him. He fetched water from a pond cupped in his hands, but it all drained away. He tried to drag the huge Verges towards the water, but he was too heavy. He then used his hat to collect water and the soaking revived his colleague, who instinctively swam backstroke in order to save himself.

Wedding 1.0

The crucial wedding scene that began act four saw Hero and Claudio kneel downstage. Beatrice stood in the background looking moved and supportive of Hero. She and Benedick were responsible for the rings, and their momentary meeting centre stage as they placed them on a stool behind the couple proved slightly embarrassing for them both.

Claudio’s “No” produced gasps as it looked like he was directly refusing to marry Hero. Relief came as the verbal quibble was explained. Benedick came up behind Claudio to comment on the “interjections”.

Claudio became angry and stood up to question Leonato. He threw Hero to the ground before saying “There Leonato, take her back again”. Hero, although shocked, got up again and remonstrated with Claudio. Leonato and Don Pedro joined in. Benedick’s “This looks not like a nuptial” got a laugh.

Hero fell to the ground sobbing and was comforted by Beatrice. As Claudio and the others left, the stool with the rings was overturned casting them to the ground. Don John crowned his triumph by throwing some loose change contemptuously at Hero implying the cheap price at which she could be bought.

Leonato continued to rail at Hero, while Benedick hovered in the background. The Friar intervened with his plan to fake Hero’s death, to which Leonato consented saying that “the smallest twine” could lead him.

Beatrice and Benedick were left alone to make their declarations of love for each other. Benedick blurted his out; Beatrice was caught off guard, reciprocated, but then backtracked in confusion shaking her hands as if trying to rid herself of her doubts.

The audience laughed when she insisted that Benedick “Kill Claudio”. Benedick did not seem to take her seriously either which prompted a tirade from Beatrice ending with her shouting about Claudio that she would “eat his heart in the marketplace”. This was all excellently paced and emotionally authentic.

The Sexton sat on a stool near the stage right walkway at the start of 4.2 and wrote his report as Borachio and Conrade were examined. Dogberry did not appreciate the complexity of the procedure and tried to leave just after presenting the accused men, forcing the Sexton to call him back and produce their accusers.

The watchmen’s accusations were confirmed as the Sexton held up a piece of paper with the details, including news of the death of Hero. On hearing this, Borachio knelt in repentance, still clutching the purse of reward money in his hand. This detail was particularly pleasing and effective in performance.

The Sexton exited and Dogberry tried to find him by looking under the cushion on the stool where he had been sitting. Conrade called Dogberry an ass, prompting his long self-aggrandising speech, accompanied by brief mimes outlining each of his good qualities.

Fight

Act five began with Leonato telling his brother Antonio how he was convinced that Hero had been wronged by Claudio. So when Claudio and Don Pedro encountered them sparks were bound to fly. As Leonato accused him, Claudio reached for his sword and hastily put it up again. But after some goading, Claudio pushed Leonato to the ground before turning on Antonio.

Antonio’s rage at Claudio forced the young man to draw his sword, but his gesture offering to fight was only half-hearted: he held his arms open, emphasising how ready he was to meet Antonio’s aggression. Finally Claudio threw his sword to the ground. Antonio went to pick it up, but was dissuaded by Leonato.

Having dealt with unserious challenges from Leonato and Antonio, Claudio then faced a determined Benedick, who although not outwardly aggressive, did signal a serious intent to confront Claudio in a formal duel.

Claudio did not take Benedick seriously, causing the latter to make a wanking gesture telling Claudio “your wit ambles well”. This and Benedick’s persistence finally got the message through to his opponent.

The watch entered and Dogberry was so nervous of Don Pedro that he did not fully articulate his sentences. He only half spoke them with the last part trailing off as he swallowed his speech.

Borachio, still contemplating the death of Hero, looked distraught. He only gained slight relief from his lengthy confession to the assembled company.

Leonato entered and scorned Borachio, but also turned his wrath on Claudio, who offered his sword to Leonato saying “Choose your revenge yourself” as if inviting Leonato to strike him with his own blade.

There was a slight ripple of audience laughter when black Leonato mentioned that his brother, the white Antonio, had a daughter who looked exactly like Hero and that Claudio could make amends by marrying her.

Dogberry and Verges bowed obsequiously before Leonato, were rewarded, but continued to bow and comically ingratiate themselves.

Benedick showed Margaret his love poem to Beatrice (5.2) but she could only laugh at it. Her witty, bawdy wordplay with Benedick was fully in keeping with the earthiness of her character.

He sent Margaret to fetch Beatrice, and tried singing while waiting for her. He stood stage right and tunelessly intoned his song.

Once together, the pair were hesitant in their declarations of affection. Beatrice’s biting wit returned to dig at him. Benedick’s “Serve God, love me and mend” was more like a witty riposte than an invitation to intimacy.

Benedick did reveal his true feelings for Beatrice at the end of their encounter. Beatrice invited him to go hear the news of Hero’s betrayal. His reply drifted off into living in her heart, dying in her lap and being buried in her eyes. But then he hastily corrected himself and responded to the matter in hand.

Hero was carried in on a bier for 5.3. Flowers were placed in her (presumed) dead hands and Claudio read his epitaph to her. He placed the paper he had been reading from next to her. At the end when all those not in the know had left, Hero got up from the bier and the Priest gave her a thumbs-up to indicate that the subterfuge had worked.

Wedding 2.0

The final scene (5.4) saw the ladies being given hooded veils to disguise themselves. Claudio’s line referring to “an Ethiope” was cut for reasons of sensitivity.

Claudio and Don Pedro joked around with Benedick, with Don Pedro clenching his fists and landing them on Benedick’s head like cuckold’s horns as Claudio taunted him.

The women blindfolded Claudio and spun him round a few times. Hero was brought forward and placed beside him, still hooded. She took off her hood to speak to Claudio before removing his blindfold, so that his surprise at seeing her was instant. They kissed to great audience applause.

Benedick undercut the romance of the moment by swiftly donning a blindfold, holding it slightly away from his eyes and entreating the Friar to tell him which of the hooded women was Beatrice.

Beatrice revealed herself and they both swiftly realised that their only real assurance of the other’s feelings had come from their friends.

Their cool, sarcastic mockery of each other was punctured when the love poems each had written about the other were produced in evidence of their underlying affection.

Beatrice and Benedick each obtained the other’s work and posed centre stage brandishing the offending lines at each other like weapons ready for a duel. They stood apart to read the poems, at one moment laughing in scorn, then nodding in admiration at something pleasing.

Leonato’s line was given to Benedict who stopped Beatrice’s mouth with a kiss to audience cheers.

Don Pedro sat slouched on the stage left walkway, prompting Benedick’s advice to him to get a wife.

The performance ended with a jig, the most notable feature of which was the return of Don John. Don Pedro slapped him, but then shook hands to make up, so that his errant brother was a full part of the celebratory dance at the end.

Conclusions

This production came as welcome relief after the overpriced and slightly tacky production on offer at Wyndham’s Theatre.

Its main advantage over the Tennant/Tate production was the presence of Eve Best who delivered an excellent and fully rounded Beatrice.

This Much Ado was well worth additional viewings. It further cemented the Globe’s reputation for producing thoroughly enjoyable Shakespeare comedies that take full advantage of the venue’s intimate cast-audience bond.

The striking redirection of a Don John line at the hissing audience before the interval demonstrated that there are always exciting new possibilities to be discovered in a Shakespeare text.

Pretty vacant

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.

Fresh snow at the Globe

Shakespeare’s Globe to present Much Ado and All’s Well in 2011

The Globe 2011 season announced today contains only two main house Shakespeare productions: the much-loved, crowd-pleasing comedy workhorse Much Ado About Nothing and the unjustly neglected rarity All’s Well That Ends Well.

Much Ado is so strong a piece it could be made out of girders. The merry war between the principal characters is robust enough a story to flourish under any conditions.

All’s Well, on the other hand, has not enjoyed the same degree of popularity and exposure. But this lack of familiarity can be turned to advantage and used to explore the play without the encumbrance of expectation.

If staging Hamlet is like treading a worn, muddy path with the footsteps of those that have gone before all too visible, then putting on All’s Well is like stepping out into crisp, fresh snow.

The 2009 National Theatre production chose to highlight the fairytale element in the play and contrast it with the adult reality of relationships. This created a very modern and cynical subversion of the fairytale format.

The precise approach of the Globe production obviously remains to be seen. But it’s to be hoped that the final moment of the NT production, with Helena and Bertram looking at each other aghast at their awkwardly contrived and ill-starred marriage, will point the director towards an exploration of the play’s hidden depths, perhaps to find other modern resonances.

Staging these two plays in the same season is also a great opportunity for comparison and contrast. Highlighting in particular how All’s Well differs from its more familiar stable mate should throw those differences into sharper relief, providing us with an even clearer view of what this neglected gem has to offer.