The Theatreguide.London Reviews
Much Ado About Nothing
For the archive, we have filed reviews of several past productions of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing on this page. Scroll down for the one you want, or just browse.
Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park Summer 2000
This is going to be the review I thought I was going to write about the Open Air's Midsummer Night's Dream: Much Ado is a pleasant enough production enhanced by the lovely outdoor setting.
If you click over to my Dream review, you'll see that I was delightfully surprised to find it actually one of the best productions of that play I've ever seen. I can't say the same about this Much Ado, though. While the play, like most of Shakespeare's comedies, is ultimately indestructible, this version does only the minimum to bring out its charm and comic potential.
This is the one about the feuding couple whose friends play a practical joke, telling him that she secretly loves him and her that he loves her, with the inevitable result. Much, therefore, depends on the playing and chemistry between the two leads, and here is one of the production's biggest failings.
While Tom Mannion has some charm as Benedick, changing instantly from cynical observer to starry-eyed teenager, a lot of the pleasure he offers comes from the novelty of hearing his lines spoken in a Glasgow accent. But Nicola Redmond is a complete blank as Beatrice, offering no sense of the character's spark or personality; and there is absolutely no chemistry between the two.
Like any comedy, the play is full of classic scenes full of humour or touching emotion, just waiting for the director and actors to release their potential. While none fall absolutely flat here, none approach their possibilities. The matched scenes in which Benedick and Beatrice are made to overhear the reports of their love are only mildly amusing; the "star danced" scene in which she gives a glimpse of vulnerability beneath her wisecracks goes by unnoticed; the climactic "Kill Claudio" moment gets a laugh, but no sense of its turning-point importance.
The rest of the cast seem lost in their roles and in the dialogue, offering little in the way of individuality or character. The play has a military setting, and various productions have dressed it in every war for the past 400 years. This version, not for the first time, is set in the 1940s, but little is accomplished by that transformation. In the ball scene, one girl dresses as Judy Garland and sings a snatch of Over the Rainbow; and the comic nightwatchmen are played as Dad's Army, with costumes and characterizations directly aping the cast of the British TV sitcom.
But none of this helps give the play any sense of time or place. Ian Talbot bustles about as Dogberry in a performance based entirely on bluster, so that the character's constant malapropisms don't register. Sally Hawkins does manage to find a little spark in the usually colourless role of Hero, but most of the other actors lapse into reciting blankly until whole speeches turn into the near-gibberish we remember with dread from our first attempts at reading Shakespeare in school.
This is particularly noticeable because the same actors were so extraordinarily good in the Dream at making the lines come alive with naturalness and at giving their characters individual personalities and realities.
When that happens, credit and blame must lie entirely on the directors. Just as Alan Strachan deserved unreserved praise for Dream, Rachel Kavanaugh must bear the burden of responsibility for her actors' limitations and for Much Ado's failure to come fully alive.
Haymarket Theatre Summer 2002
Gregory Doran's new RSC production of this warm and happy comedy is thoroughly delightful. I've seen funnier productions in the past and more romantic ones, but rarely one that scored so high in both effects at once.
This is the one about the feuding couple obviously made for each other. So his friends tell him she's in love with him, and her friends tell her he's crazy for her, and we sit back and watch them convince themselves (or, rather, discover) that they are, and always have been, in love. By casting Harriet Walter and Nicholas le Prevost in the leads, both of them (let us say politely) a bit more mature than the usual Beatrice and Benedick, Doran adds a nice touch of warmth by suggesting that time is running out for this pair to find each other.
Le Prevost plays a scruffy military man who has spent his entire life in the company of other men, and doesn't quite understand the attraction others find in women. Walter plays an outwardly happy single woman with just the edge of desperation to her jokes and one-of-the-guys image to betray a fear of the spinsterhood awaiting her. And so, when these two are talked into falling in love, we cheer not only for the comic symmetry, but for their good fortune.
Those with long memories will spot Doran borrowing freely from past RSC productions of the play, most notably the 1976 Sinden-Dench and 1982 Jacobi-Cusack versions. But he borrows wisely and very much to le Prevost's advantage, as the scene in which he eavesdrops on his friends talking about her supposed love for him, and the one in which he convinces himself he sees it in her behaviour, are the comic high points of the evening. And the one in which they finally declare their love and she demands a seemingly impossible proof from him, is emotionally real and moving.
It doesn't all work. Doran sets the play in 1930s Italy for no real reason, and does nothing with the context. Kirsten Parker and John Hopkins are appropriately attractive as Hero and Claudio, but about as colourless as those thankless roles usually are. Christopher Benjamin falls into the trap of most Dogberrys in being drearily unfunny, while Clive Wood gives a bizarre performance as Don Pedro, playing him as broadly camp as Frankie Howerd.
But those are minor slips in one of the better productions of this play I've seen, making it an ideal choice for a pleasant London summer's evening.
Novello Theatre Winter 2006-2007
The great thing about some of Shakespeare's comedies is that they play themselves. All a director and actors have to do is stay out of the way of the Dream or As You Like It or Much Ado and enough of the play's fun will come through to make for a good evening.
And the best thing that can be said of Marianne Elliott's production for the Royal Shakespeare Company is that she pretty much stays out of the play's way.
On the other hand, she doesn't bring much to it. So if you're new to the play, you'll find a lot to delight you, but if you've ever seen it before (and why do I find myself writing this sentence about the RSC so often?) you have almost certainly seen it done better.
This is the one about the feuding couple, Benedick and Beatrice. His friends tell him she loves him, her friends tell her he's crazy about her, and so naturally they fall in love. (In the subplot a serious lover is tricked into denouncing his bride-to-be as a whore, and the error must be uncovered and corrected.)
The fact that the Benedick-Beatrice plot has become such a staple of romantic comedy that any time we meet a feuding couple we know where the movie or sitcom is going is evidence of how inherently funny and engaging it is. But director Elliott seems to have gone into the job of staging it half-heartedly, and evidence of some basic lack of interest or affinity abounds.
Take one small example: for no evident reason, this production has been set in pre-Castro Cuba, but nothing has been done with that except for one very brief and undeveloped stab at identifying the subplot's villain with Che Guevera.
More central evidence of the director's inability to really engage with the play lies in the two funniest scenes. The trap for Benedick and Beatrice involves their friends letting each of them overhear the other's love being spoken of, and so we get back-to-back scenes of eavesdropping in which the speakers want to be heard and the listeners go through unnecessarily farcical attempts not to be noticed.
A challenge for a director is to find different ways for Benedick and Beatrice to make fools of themselves (or to find two different ways of playing the scene - I have seen the surprise of one of them being serious and touching work very well), but Marianne Elliott gives both of them almost exactly the same comic shtick, a virtual confession of failure of imagination.
That same inability to find any way of adding anything to the play's inherent comedy runs through the entire evening. The comic watchmen who play a Keystone Cops role in the subplot have defeated many a director's attempts to make them actually funny, but Elliott seems to have given up in advance, just having them walk through the scenes.
Doubling back to the eavesdropping scenes, they illustrate another problem of this production, Though the two scenes are very similar, Tamsin Greig's is funnier than Joseph Millson's. That's because Greig is a comic actress (You know her best as the often befuddled dark-haired doctor on TV's Green Wing) while Millson is an actor attempting comedy.
The difference is that you always see him working at it, and comedy is always, always better when it seems effortless. Greig is the only one onstage who shows a natural comic flair, and it is clear that the credit goes entirely to her and not her director.
Still, as I say, the play's inherent virtues are not destroyed by this production, just not enhanced. And a curious by-product is that the serious subplot, usually overshadowed into wooden dreariness by the comedy, is allowed to stand in its own light and be more quietly touching than it's ever seemed before.
So I have no reason not to send a first-timer to this production, though anyone with fond memories of other versions might just as well stick with them.
Olivier Theatre Winter 2007-2008
This is a thoroughly enjoyable production of one of Shakespeare's most delightful romantic comedies. If I gave out stars, it would get four out of five, the only reservation being that it misses some key opportunities to be even better.
This is the one about the feuding couple, Benedick and Beatrice. His friends tell him she secretly loves him, her friends tell her the same about him, and so naturally . . . .
Director Nicholas Hytner gives the tale an added depth by casting a pair of actors who are, let us say, not in the first blush of youth, Simon Russell Beale and Zoe Wanamaker. This is not a wholly original idea, and there are even some things in the text that hint at it, but it does work, nicely mellowing the humour with the warm sense of a last chance fortunately grasped.
(Indeed, many of the best things in this production have been done before, though rarely as well as here.)
Both stars are expert comedians and master speakers of the verse, making their characters clear, real and fully available to us - and that is no small accomplishment. And so it may be a bit unfair of me to hold them up to their own very high standards and say that I had hoped for more from one of them than we get here.
Simon Russell Beale may just possibly be the finest classical actor of his generation. He is, let us admit, not a matinee idol type, but one of his greatest strengths is his ability to discover that Uncle Vanya or even Hamlet is actually a rumpled, chubby little man ill at ease in his own body.
I don't mean to say that he plays every role the same, rather that he sensitively and legitimately finds ways to use his instrument to bring out qualities written into the roles that other actors have missed, enriching our perception of the characters.
And so, perhaps unfairly, I anticipated his discovering in the cynical Benedick a man who had given up on love because he assumed himself unlovable, and who would now be given entry to a world he thought closed to him.
And he doesn't do that. Indeed, beyond the moments of humour and seriousness inescapable in the text, he gives us no real character at all. I repeat that even a surface performance from him is better than what most actors can deliver, but I can't help missing what might have been.
This is especially true because Zoe Wanamaker does go that extra step in fleshing out Beatrice. Working from hints in the text, she gives us a full backstory for Beatrice, who loved Benedick in the past, had her heart broken, and still carries a torch behind her shield of cynical wit. So her story is of a second chance she is almost afraid to trust.
Put another way, when he overhears (in a scene set up by the others so that he will overhear them) that she loves him, he's mildly surprised. When she experiences the parallel scene, she's thrilled. And that makes all the difference, colouring our sense of both of them.
Incidentally, those two eavesdropping scenes, in which the listeners try to hide from speakers who know they're there, are among the funniest in all of Shakespeare, and all I need say is that there is a deep pool of water onstage . . . .
The subplot is a more serious one about a groom falsely convinced his bride is unchaste. That couple always pale in comparison to Benedick and Beatrice and it is no serious criticism to say that Daniel Hawksford and Susannah Fielding aren't able to do much to bring them alive, except that it would have been nice if they had somehow managed it.
Oliver Ford Davies does make more of the bride's father than most, inhabiting him with real personality and passion, though the low-comedy watchmen are as unfunny as they almost always are (another chance missed to rise above the norm), except for Trevor Peacock's scene-stealing Verges.
So what we have is a production that is at its weakest as good as any, and at its best better than most, whose only disappointments are the hints that it could have been even better.
By way of contrast with Jeremy Herrin's relatively traditional Much Ado, which opened at the Globe the previous week, Josie Rourke has created a populist, Dr Who star vehicle to wow West End audiences.
The trick is already working as top price £61 tickets were being sold by agents at over 2½ times that sum by the time that the show officially opened.
In order to make Shakespeare accessible to fans of David Tennant and Catherine Tate, Miss Rourke has taken a leaf out of the I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue book by reimagining Much Ado in the style of Mamma Mia.
Set on a Mediterranean island during the 1980s, the production is visually, temperamentally and in terms of the mannerisms and speech patterns, very much designed for a modern audience.
Underpinning this is Shakespeare's good old comedy, though at times it can seem creaky in the spotlight of a contemporary milieu. In particular, it is hard to believe that the Hello-wedding of two beautiful youngsters with the looks of cover models would be impeded by the discovery that the bottle-blonde bimbo bride, Hero was no longer a virgin.
Though the poetry does not benefit from the updating, there is much to enjoy in this 2¾ hours, especially for the devoted fans of two of TV's biggest stars. In particular, some of the visual humour is fantastic, particularly in the mirrored scenes in which Beatrice and Benedick's friends give their stormy relationship some none too subtle nudges in the right direction.
After the navy has returned from a successful battle, Hero and handsome Claudio, respectively played by Sarah Macrae and Tom Bateman, soon hook up, attracted by looks rather than brains.
To counterpoint their match, Tennant as a drunken Glaswegian Benedick who makes his entry on a golf cart that blares out Dixie, and Miss Tate playing Beatrice as a mildly estuarine, malcontent modelled on - well, Catherine Tate - joust with barbed words.
Despite surface misanthropy and protestations that they will never marry anyone, it is easy enough to see a future marriage in the making
However, true love does not run all that smoothly for either pairing, as Elliot Levey's wicked Don John throws a spanner into the works, which nearly ends the play as a tragedy, until a quartet of ageing amateur sleuths under the guidance of John Ramm's Rambo-Dogberry uncover the plot and save the day to ensure that the final disco marks a wedding rather than a wake.
There is no doubt that audiences will flock to Wyndham's and love seeing their heroes in the flesh. However, those wanting a taste of the wit and subtlety of the real thing, will prefer the joys of the Globe and could save around £130 into the bargain.
Noel Coward Theatre Autumn 2012
Hot on the heels of the Royal Shakespeare Company's African Julius Caesar comes this Much Ado set in India, and it's a bit of a mixed curry with almost as many things that don't work as that do.
(Reminder: feuding couple are each led to believe the other is in love, so they do fall in love. In the subplot a groom is tricked into accusing his bride-to-be of being unchaste.)
Setting the play in modern Delhi proves an almost total success, both thematically and theatrically. The subplot's arranged marriage and outrage at a woman's dishonour make sense, as does the attractive but scary uniqueness of the feisty and no-nonsense Beatrice. The colourful Indian setting gives the play a festive air, especially in the Bollywood-flavoured dances of the costume party, the wedding and the final celebration.
The production's weaknesses lie in some uninspired acting and direction, which keep missing comic possibilities and dragging the play down.
Meera Syal makes Beatrice an attractively modern woman, a force to be reckoned with even in grief, and she could be one of the great Beatrices if she only had something to bounce off. But Paul Bhattacharjee is almost invisible as Benedick, constantly fading into the background so that you have trouble remembering which one in the crowd he is.
His Benedick isn't a natural wit, but the always-ignored kid desperately trying to be noticed by being the class clown, but just letting us see how hard he's working at being funny, rather than actually being funny.
The comic centre of the play is in two scenes in which each of them is allowed to eavesdrop on conversations they're meant to hear, about how much in love the other is. Their reactions and their attempts not to be seen by the speakers who know they're there are opportunities for hilarious visual humour, but director Iqbal Khan characteristically tries too hard in Benedick's scene while doing virtually nothing with Beatrice's.
Elsewhere, Dogberry and the night watchmen, among the few Shakespearean clowns who actually can still come across as funny today, are presented as such a seemingly undirected ragbag of different styles that their scenes are just a mess.
(Those almost as old as I will remember John Barton's 1976 RSC Much Ado, also set in India, where the watch were natives trying hilariously to out-British the British who had trained them – a hint of the sort of opportunity director Khan misses here.)
Elsewhere, Shiv Grewal plays a Don Pedro younger than most, Gary Pillai gives the villainous Don John odd and undeveloped hints of homosexuality, and Amara Karan and Sagar Arya make as little impression as all actors stuck with the roles of Hero and Claudio do.
Two of the greatest actors in the world today, at very far from their best. If you've never seen them, you must. If you have, you might be better off with just your memories of them in better days.
Much Ado is the Shakespeare comedy about the feuding couple who are tricked into falling in love by his friends saying she loves him and hers saying he loves her. It has become the fashion in recent decades to play Benedick and Beatrice as not in the first flush of youth, to add a nice touch of last-chance sentiment to the comedy. But not since the Nineteenth Century at least has anyone thought of casting actual pensioners in the roles.
James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave (combined ages well north of 150) are dreadfully, dreadfully miscast, and all their charm, skill and charisma cannot disguise that.
It is beyond suspension of disbelief to accept this arthritic and forgetful old man as a combat soldier, and Redgrave, despite her classic beauty, looks a generation older than the actor playing her uncle.
Much worse, there is simply no chemistry between the two who played so smoothly together in Driving Miss Daisy last year.
Much of the problem lies in Jones. After faffing his way through vague approximations of Tennessee Williams' words in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof a couple of seasons back, Jones has even more trouble with Shakespeare, perhaps because it's less easy to fake.
It is no exaggeration to say there is a look of surprise and relief on his face when he manages to get through a speech without having to make it up as he goes along, and there isn't a single scene without a dreadful pause until his memory clicks in or someone feeds him a cue.
Actually, Jones is not alone in this, as every member of the cast and every scene has mangled lines or missed or jumped cues, actors leaping in to respond to something that hasn't been said yet.
The overall sense is of some point in the middle of the rehearsal period, when they've put down their scripts but haven't really memorised everything – and that is simply not good enough for Shakespeare, for the Old Vic or, for that matter, for professionals.
Director Mark Rylance must take much of the blame for not driving his cast to a basic level of achievement, and he doesn't make up for it with a particularly effective concept.
Setting the play in the 1940s, with an African-American GI company billeted with British civilians, helps explain Jones' presence but not much more, and Ultz's set, a bare stage dominated by a kind of large square tube, represents nothing and interferes with sight lines.
None of the play's comic set pieces – the masquerade ball, the two eavesdropping scenes in which the net is cast for the lovers-to-be, the inept watchmen's capture of the villains, or the concluding dance – are well staged, ranging from bland to unclear.
Struggling with his lines, limited in his mobility and having to sit down whenever possible, James Earl Jones has little opportunity to develop a character, while Vanessa Redgrave, at least in her scenes with Jones, is clearly devoting all her psychic energy toward willing him to get it right, leaving her with too few resources to devote to her own role.
See this if you have never seen the play or the two stars, but be aware that you are not seeing it or them at their best.
Haymarket Theatre Winter 2016-2017
This Royal Shakespeare Company production is an uneven package. Bits of it are very fine indeed, while the rest ranges from pretty good downward. You'll be more pleased than not, but not as fully delighted as the play promises.
This is the one about the bickering couple. To get them together his friends give him the idea that she secretly loves him while her friends let her believe he secretly loves her, and so what has been obvious to everybody (including us) from the start happily happens.
There's also a subplot involving a bride-to-be falsely accused of being unchaste, and some broad clowning by the town constables.
At the centre of any production are the two eavesdropping scenes, in which first Benedick and then Beatrice must hide to hear what their friends are saying and the friends must hide the fact that they know exactly where the listeners are, and are in fact speaking to be overheard.
Director Christopher Luscombe and actor Edward Bennett find a string of inventive new ways to make Benedick's inability to keep himself hidden hilarious, and the laugh-filled scene flows as delightfully as you could wish.
But the director's invention appears to have been exhausted by the time he got to Beatrice's parallel scene, with nothing particularly funny happening and actress Lisa Dillon unable to do much with the moment's opportunities for a romantic softening of her character.
That gap between the two central characters and the two stars plagues the first half of the evening, with Edward Bennett finding his quick-thinking and attractively witty Benedick from the start, while it really isn't until the 'Kill Claudio' scene about two-thirds of the way through the evening that Lisa Dillon's Beatrice really comes alive.
The usually bland and less interesting subplot is blander than usual in the hands of Tunji Kasim's barely individualised Claudio and Rebecca Collingwood's all-but-invisible Hero.
The watchmen, always ranking high on any list of Shakespeare's least funny clowns, are their usual dreary selves, with Nick Haverson unable to make Dogberry's unceasing malapropisms raise even a chuckle.
But then Haverson and director Luscombe insert a sequence of physical clowning that starts off hilarious and only gets better and better as they milk every last laugh out of it – a bit of business so enjoyable that you happily forgive the fact that it has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the play.
As in the companion production of Love's Labour's Lost, Simon Higlett's attractive and protean set and Nigel Hess's evocative music contribute to the play's festive tone and its sense of time and place.
Much Ado is being performed in rep with Love's Labour's Lost with the same cast and director.
(Oh, and a note about the title. A 1598 list of Shakespeare's plays includes one called Love's Labour's Won. For centuries that was mourned as a lost play, but current scholarship is inclined to consider it an alternative title for one of the romantic comedies we have.
Although it would fit As You Like It, All's Well, The Shrew or Twelfth Night equally well, the RSC have decided it belongs to Much Ado, justifying the pairing and cross-casting of Lost and Won.)
Return to Theatreguide.London home page.
Reviews of Much Ado About Nothing 2000 - 2016