Out with the old... in with the new. Wednesday 2nd January saw me making my first theatre trip of 2008 when Owen and I to see one of my favourite Shakespeare plays MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING at the Olivier, this time the sparring lovers Benedick and Beatrice are played by Simon Russell Beale and Zoe Wanamaker.
Director Nicholas Hytner hasn't delved too deeply into the play and it coasts along serenely thanks to Wanamaker and Russell Beale, truly the uncrowned monarchs of the National who bring their formidable experience in stage comedy to the table and both give performances of great wit, empathy and that indefineable magic that makes for a memorable performance.
Much has been made about both being slightly too old for the roles but they use this to their favour. You really feel that here are a couple whose sniping and verbal jousting cover a lingering regret for the breakdown of their relationship in the past. It is never explained why the relationship foundered but it has turned both of them into hardbitten cynics - neither of whom can be easy to live with which explains why his friends and her family take such delight in tricking them into believing the one loves the other.
The play famously repeats the idea of people being fooled: Don Pedro pretends to be Claudio to woo Hero for his friend at a masked ball while at the same time, Don John convinces Claudio that Don Pedro is wooing Hero for himself; Benedick and Beatrice's friends and family trick them into thinking the other is in love with them; Don John tricks Claudio and Don Pedro into believing Hero is not a virgin by a further trick played on her maid Margaret; Hero's family pretend she died after being violently refused at the altar by Claudio. I must admit I have always had difficulty with the central conceit of Hero's unfaithfulness. As it was her personal maid who was mistaken for her - why doesn't the maid simply come forward to clear her mistress? The Branagh film version even has Margaret attending the wedding and watching the ensuing denouncement with only a slight guilty chewing of her bottom lip. I understand plot conceits as well as the next man but I would have thought the Bard could have come up with a better one than that.
I have also always had a slight annoyance at the passivity of Hero who does little to counter the angry slandering of her name by Claudio, Don Pedro and her own father at her wedding and who simply accepts a contrite Claudio at the end of the play. Girl, he's done it before... he'll do it again. But then who am I to pick holes in a play that has been constantly performed since about 1599? Funnily enough, having become so familiar with the 1993 film version from watching Emma's wonderful performance as Beatrice, it was interesting to see how much Branagh had shaved from the play for his screenplay.
On the whole the supporting cast are fine: Julian Wadham is silkily powerful as Don Pedro while Andrew Woodall makes a hissable Don John. Mark Addy is a likeable Dogberry although Trevor Peacock should have left his VICAR OF DIBLEY schtick at the BBC. The two young lovers were a bit blah... Daniel Hawksford was ok as the changeable Claudio but Susannah Fielding's Hero was too stage school-y to pass master with this company. She wasn't much better as Rosa in THE ROSE TATTOO last year.
Vicki Mortimer's set was functionable but a bit off-putting... a revolving open-sided structure which kept reminding me of one of those puzzling set-structures so beloved of BBC variety programmes like IT'S DUSTY! or THE VAL DOONICAN SHOW.HOWEVER on the whole I had a great launch into my '08 theatre-going with this production and Simon Russell Beale and Zoe Wanamaker have already set a high standard for other actors to match this year.