Much Ado About Nothing
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Mark Rylance
Starring James Earl Jones & Vanessa Redgrave
The Old Vic, London
Saturday 21st September 2013 14.30
Vanessa Redgrave as Beatrice
James Earl Jones as Benedick
Beth Cooke as Claudio
Lloyd Everitt as Hero
Michael Elwyn as Leonato
Peter Wight as Dogberry
James Garnon as Don Pedro
Danny Lee Wynter
Daunting reviews. A disaster? A train wreck?
‘Frankly it’s a relief when this laborious and misguided production grinds to a halt and everyone is still standing.’ The Telegraph. 2 stars
‘A car crash,’ The Daily Express one star, adding: The fault is not that of the two harmless oldsters, who look on in a state of sleepy bewilderment at the disaster they’re involved in. The blame lies mainly with the maniac at the wheel.
‘one of the most senseless Shakespearean productions I have seen in a long time”. The Guardian, one star, adding what is hard to credit is the general incompetence of the staging
‘underpowered and confused’ Evening Standard
‘a misconceived mess,’ The Independent, ‘dreary as well as incoherent.’ one star
He (James Earl Jones), oh dear, is really not up to it. The prompter has a tense evening. Twice Mr Earl Jones is given an armchair from which to deliver his soliloquies. Shades of Jackanory. Daily Mail, two stars.
Rylance says that all the impetus for this production came from Redgrave and Jones’ desire to perform it: it’s a desire that should have been strangled early. What’s On Stage, two stars / reader review one star
Jones is still not master of his lines, sending verbal shot after shot into the net, unbalancing the elegant symmetry of Benedick’s constructions and leaving us tense until his safe arrival at each final full-stop Arts Desk com
Is it really that bad? Actually, it’s worse. My favourite actor, Mark Rylance, switches to director and delivers the worst Shakesperean production I’ve seen in many years. I include amateur productions, most of which were better than this. It is truly dire. If this were a commercial Broadway musical, it would shut up shop next week for sure. Because it’s elite London theatre, provincials like me invested in tickets many months ago, meaning it can stay running. Undeservedly. Even though good tickets had to be booked at the beginning of the year, looking down from the dress circle, there were blocks of two seats empty dotted around the stalls. The side dress circle was near empty. We’re on the first Saturday of the run.
I hate giving bad reviews. I know how much effort goes in. But … face it, we paid £104 for tickets, we gave up a day, we drove 100 miles each way … we are entitled to say it. This is crap. To repeat, up there with Peter and The Starcatcher and Peter and Alice as the worst plays reviewed on this blog. And this is the worst of the three. On the Tuesday reviewers complained about fluffed lines and prompting and this was repeated on press night, Thursday. I didn’t notice any fluffed lines on Saturday, certainly no prompts. But I do know why Grandage, across the river in the West End will not admit reviews until late in Week Two when practice has been added to rehearsal.
It must have looked great on paper. Take James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave from Driving Miss Daisy as Benedick and Beatrice, not the first older “young lovers” but certainly the oldest. Add a concept: it’s 1944. A British village has only old men, women and kids left with all the men away at the war. Enter the Tuskegee American air force men, fresh from war. 1944 costume. Push the concept further. How would Tyrone Guthrie have staged it at the Old Vic in 1944? Minimalist set, extend the stage forward. Add programme notes on the power of 1940s music. Fantastic!
But it’s not. It’s truly dire. Slow, leaden, dreadful direction. The ugliest set you’ve seen in years. A brown MDF box with a brown rectangular MDF arch in the middle. It’s sad, but Rylance must shoulder all the blame. The blocking is amateur, people wandering around aimlessly in the background are a gnawing distraction. I can see the idea behind the rectangular arch centre stage … it’s a modern interpretation of the Globe’s pillars and inner stage. But the Globe’s inner stage has a back to it. This you can see through. It’s brown. it’s dull. It’s surrounded by brown. Have I mentioned that everything is brown? Very brown? And the set forces the elderly cast to shuffle through unnecessarily long entrances and exits in view. It also does something to the acoustic, perhaps it’s the arch, but I think it’s the solid shiny walls of hard MDF all round that creates a boomy acoustic that muffles everyone’s lines. It’s certainly not the theatre itself, which has always sounded fine before.
James Earl Jones is inexplicably a master sergeant among officers. But then he’s also inexplicably an 82-year old in uniform returning from the battlefield. When Rylance commissioned him, it might have seemed a good idea. But 18 months for a man in his eighties is a long time, deterioration inevitable. He still has the deep voice, we are charmed by his very presence, but at his age, cameo parts beckon. Shakespeare doesn’t roll off his tongue anymore, though this is a man who has done an acclaimed Hamlet, Lear, and Othello. But note these are all serious tragic roles. I didn’t see any light Shakespearean comedy in his list of parts. It is cruel and demeaning to cast him so far beyond his range and current ability. Beatrice and Benedick are smart repartee, banter, fast witty exchanges. James and Vanessa aren’t up to it, even though Vanessa still retains the afterglow of a once great charisma and is certainly willing to throw herself full force into shouting at the end. She might have got away with it given a different Benedick. Old, but not as old as James Earl Jones.
It’s not their fault. None of the cast shine in this one. Hero, or rather Hewo, has that soft R and soft L that doesn’t bother current directors, but which I have refused to admit to English Language Teaching CDs. She may be pwoud, and twust people, and TV drama is no barrier to badly articulated R’s and L’s. But Shakespeare is.
Bad articulation? We haven’t started. The concept that the British men are ancient is accepted. The “Americans” make an appalling mash of Shakespeare throughout. That’s NOT because they have American accents … the American accents are beautifully clear in the recent Joss Whedon film of Much Ado About Nothing (linked). The problem is that they are not Americans. These are British actors having to cope with putting on an accent and doing Shakespeare. As so many productions prove, Shakespeare works with any accent in English … but they are normally the actors’ natural accents. Trying to do an accent convincingly with Shakesperean lines is like rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time. A difficult feat. The result is that they are all hard to understand till well into act two when you’ve acclimatized. There is a story that the Macedonians in Alexander The Great all have Irish accents to match Colin Farrell, which is why they mainly sound wrong. Here they’re trying to match James Earl Jones. Borachio (Kingsley Ben-Adir) got nearest to getting away with it for me because he adopted a strong Southern accent, and maybe that concealed my detector on “slightly off” American.
Claudio is plain wooden. I think James Garnon as Don Pedro and Danny Lee Wynter as Don John would get away with decent reviews in a better-directed and rehearsed version. Wynter looks the part, and the somewhat odd voice and articulation gives him an edge. I was starting to warm to Garnon’s Don Pedro as his not-quite accent became familiar. But Brits doing American always jangles for me. I guess I spent so many years recording Brits trying to do American AND vice-versa that I’m hyper-critical. And you know, one of the advantages of period costume is that you can tell people apart. Put four men of similar height in identical uniforms, all with light-skinned Afro faces, then identical hats, and several times I wasn’t sure who was speaking.
The “masked ball” was an anachronism, combining the British Guy Fawkes Night with the American Halloween … and that’s a 21st century combination, not a 1944 one. Plus if you have actors who are shaky on accent, articulation and Shakspeare, and a dreadful acoustic, never contemplate having them speak through a mask.
You have to blame Rylance squarely. The most dramatic bit is capturing the plotters, Borachio and Conrad. He uses child actors dressed as boy scouts – the Watch are boy scouts – for the most dramatic physical action in the play. Is it any surprise that it is school play feeble? He throws away a great scene, plus take a cue from the movie. Show the Borachio deception scene in mime, don’t just report it. It’s farcical, but not in a good sense. I thought the captured two did the best they could with a grin here and there, but they could simply have picked up the kids and thrown them over a fence rather than submit to arrest.
Then when Benedick has to overhear them saying how much Beatrice adores him, he is totally out of sight in a cart. So the whole comedy relies on seeing his astonished reaction, but we can’t see him at all. Perhaps they thought he needed a lie down. All the overhearing in the play requires a set with opportunities to do so.
Take another tiny example. Three American soldiers march on and line up across the black cloth covered rectangle while Claudio makes his speech standing on top. This is a funeral group of formal sentries. But they’re not squared up to the rectangle, nor are they evenly-distanced apart, as soldiers would be. HIT YOUR MARK! STAND ON THAT CROSS OF GAFFER TAPE! X marks the spot! Yes, the blocking is incompetent, and as the rest of the play screams out, under-rehearsed.
The reviews praise Dogberry, played as PC Plod on a pushbike. The rest of the Watch are Verges as an ancient in Salvation Army uniform, a girl, and the two boy scouts. Go back and watch the recent movie. This Dogberry is merely competent, by no means “great”, competent in this surrounding context makes him the best. Basically he is, (along with Michael Elwyn’s Leonato), the easiest to understand, both as Dogberry and as Friar Francis.
Then the closing dance piece is pathetic because there is no snap of timing, and the chosen tune is cheerful where it needs to be “end dance exuberant”, though my companion did note throughout that Beryl / The young girl was a naturally talented dancer. The 1940s music was trumpeted in the programme, but never made it in the play. The four part singing by the American soldiers in Act One was OK, but the accompanying ukulele and harmonica was awful. The aged gardener prancing around in the background was embarrassing, crossing the line between “laughing with” and “laughing at.” But there are several visual things like that which probably would have worked IF you had been taken by the production: the beanpole tall messenger (who dances with the short girl), the feeble old gardener / Verges, even those boy scouts tripping up the villains by tying their shoelaces. Earl Jones threatening a duel, shuffling about with a pistol and holster. But you’re not with the production, so they don’t. The warm applause for James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave was a sympathy vote. At their age, it’s a wonder to do it at all.
There are lost chances in there. The scene near the end has an infuriated Leonato calling Claudio and Don Pedro “boy”. There is an added edge to addressing an African-American as “boy” in 1944, and if you’re going for drama, bring that out.
In the end, if you want to do Dad’s Army meeting Americans in 1944, don’t twist Shakespeare, just watch Dad’s Army’s fine episode “My British Buddy” which is far better than this boring, inept and incomprehensible tosh. If I’d seen it close to home, in Poole or Southampton at a reasonable £15 to £20 instead of £52 each, I would certainly have jumped ship at the interval, thus missing Dogberry, who anyway was only the best of a bad job. Not a major loss either. Apparently on the first night there was quite an exodus at the interval.
I was just about convinced by Mark Rylance’s programme note on setting it in 1944, I liked the piece on Tuskegee airmen, and the essay on Tyrone Guthrie’s production ideas justified the concept of staging a play set in 1944 as it might have been done in 1944. But spare me Dr Leahy’s “The Burning Question” essay on did Shakespeare write Shakespeare. OK? both Mark Rylance and Derek Jacobi are leading lights among “non-Shakespereans” who snottily argue that the son of a Stratford tradesmen could not have written the works. They must have been written by an aristocrat. It’s a classist and loony theory, shot to pieces hilariously in Bill Bryson’s book on Shakespeare (one of those suggested was dead by 1608), and a reputable theatre like the Old Vic shouldn’t be giving space to such guff. It is not “a wonderfully intriguing subject.” It’s arrant nonsense. Looney tunes. As my old drama tutor used to say, “Shakespeare was not written by William Shakespeare, but by a completely different man born in 1564 in Stratford, who died in 1616, and who, by a weird coincidence, was also called William Shakespeare.”
OTHER (and better) versions of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING on this blog:
Much Ado About Nothing, The Globe, 2014
JOSS WHELDON’S film version: