I was so excited when MUCH ADO was announced as it meant Vanessa Redgrave was finally going to act on the Old Vic stage, the very stage from which Olivier announced her birth to the world. It also meant she was finally going to play Beatrice, that she was reuniting with her DRIVING MISS DAISY co-star James Earl Jones and they were being directed by Mark Rylance. What could go wrong?
I had deliberately not seen any reviews but heard that they weren't too complementary. Oh well... not the first time reviewers don't get it. What could go wrong?
The first inkling that something was odd was Ultz' standing set - a bare brick wall set with a large wooden box-affair plonked in the middle of the stage which after a few minutes started to resemble a giant coffee-table and that thought stayed with me for the rest of the evening. His set mock-up gives you an idea of it's... oddness.
According to the programme it's a tribute to the director Tyrone Guthrie's vision in the 1930s of setting Shakespeare plays in a non-specific setting with a single wooden structure that could suggest different places. I am sure Guthrie would be charmed by the thought but I'm also sure he would never have wanted something which suggested a giant coffee table and did nothing to help the production but impeded it and cramped the performing space. Maybe if it revolved, or went up and down... but no it just sat there.
Then the production started. Rylance has hit on the whizzer idea to set it in England during the 2nd World War in a town close to a US Airforce base. I mean... how else can you explain away a black American actor and an English actress? It took awhile to get over the poleaxing evidence of Rylance's lack of an imagination. Then the incongruities and bad choices came, not as single spies but in battalions...
Ok so we all know the stage can take years off an actor but even that can't stop you thinking that Michael Elwyn is surely playing Vanessa's brother not her father, besides the hideously ugly costuming does nothing but suggest Beatrice is an old frump. To his credit, Elwyn does actually give one of the better performances.
The arrival of Don Pedro's messenger also throws you completely - is the actor REALLY that tall or is he on stilts? it is one of the most preposterous stage images ever. Enter Don Pedro's platoon of soldiers... sorry, squadron. And enter James Earl Jones in the world's largest flying suit or, as Owen preferred to call it, his onesie.
And then the trouble REALLY started. Now Earl Jones, aged 82, still has the voice which I'm sure made him a fabulous Othello, Lear, Oberon and Claudius. What his voice is not suited for is comedy verse. So the opening skirmish between Benedick and Beatrice - which should set up the larks to come - is here a confusing Fugue For Tinhorns between his rumbling and Redgrave's almost mumbled responses. These two are supposed to be a couple who have already had a failed relationship but for all their recent experience of working together I was really surprised to find Redgrave & Earl Jones' onstage partnership so negligible, as if they were only meeting for the first time in the lift up to the rehearsal room.
And so the first act progressed. Earl Jones rumbled away, saying all the words but with absolutely no sense of meaning behind them, the supporting performances seemingly being spoken as if they were still blocking the scene, a bland Claudio, an insipid Hero, a laughably non-threatening Don John and Vanessa occasionally hinting at the performance I was willing her to give. Was she hidebound by Earl Jones' performance?
Three times, thankfully, she delivered - I loved her playing of Beatrice's lovely lines "but then there was a star danced, and under that was I born" stopping after 'danced' and blowing a kiss up to the chandelier above the stalls. It felt like an acknowledgement of her birth and that auditorium. I also liked her surliness in the scene when she bids Benedick to come in for dinner, and she also had fun with her speech after the gulling scene, the start of which she directed to a member of the front row, culminating with a joyous "And, Benedick, love on; I will requite thee, Taming my wild heart to thy loving hand". I wish I could say the same for Earl Jones. He rumbled through his speech making no sense whatsoever and when he said "No, the world must be peopled" I am sure I was not the only one thinking "Love, you're 82!"
The wedding scene was a bit of a disaster - and not just for Hero. I have written before about the inherent flaw in this scene as directors always have Margaret onstage during it and as it was she who Don Pedro and Claudius saw standing at Hero's window being seduced by Borrachio, why doesn't she just own up while she is seeing her mistress' marriage going upsy-dutch? Maybe she had lost the power of speech when she caught sight of the SHITEOUS frock that Vanessa was in. When she dramatically threw aside her dressing gown to reveal it my first thought was of Dame Edna Everage.
The wedding scene did have one saving grace in Peter Wight's performance as Friar Francis. We had just seen him as the bumbling arse Dogberry but here he was, slowing the pace and speaking his lines - Stop The Press - as if he understood what he was saying. A shout-out too to Penelope Beaumont as Ursula whose several lines also showed that she knew what they meant. Needless to say, now that Benedick suddenly becomes serious and confronts Don Pedro and Claudius with their wrong, Earl Jones finally - briefly - came into his own. For all of ten minutes he justified being there.
Sadly it couldn't last, we had the bizarre finale to come. The news of Benedick and Beatrice's marriage - and his command of "Strike up pipers" - was the cue for someone to crank up the onstage record player to play a swing tune so the cast could start a half-hearted jitterbug while Earl Jones and Redgrave sat upstage on two chairs hidden behind an open newspaper. I shitteth you not. The curtain call consisted of a company bow which parted for Redgrave and Earl Jones to get up out of their chairs and join them in a bow and exit upstage, with Vanessa waving to the audience behind the by-now shuffling Earl Jones. You know there is something very wrong with a production when the actors playing Beatrice and Benedick don't get a solo bow.
Don't get me wrong. I didn't hate it. It just left me bemused and frustrated that it was allowed to be presented as such.
Especially as I then saw a production which was the polar opposite: focussed, free of directorial conceits, designed to fit the stage requirements of both the actors and the piece itself and acted with a unity of performance and purpose. But then, not every director is Richard Eyre.
Working from his own adaptation, Eyre's production of Henrik Ibsen's GHOSTS at the Almeida Theatre is a stunning achievement which keeps you gripped from the start. Even scenes which in past productions have seemed to tread water are here played with an urgency which is forever pushing the characters toward their destinies while stirring up secrets from the past.
Tim Hatley's shimmering, translucent set design is the perfect illustration of a house which has kept too many secrets behind closed doors and Peter Mumford's exquisite lighting design from a grey, rainy afternoon to the blackest night to the blazing glory of a new day, so ironical after what we have witnessed.
I have seen productions where Ibsen's use of repeating images and motifs are clanged like a deafening bell but here the repeated references to parents and children, of the sins of a previous generation being visited on the next, and the stymied chances of renewal slowly build up until they really are the ghosts of the title, haunting the rooms of the Alving house.
As I said, Eyre's translation is lean and powerful - although I must admit than an exclamation of "Bollocks" at one point was a bit of a surprise. He also has cast five performers who act as a real ensemble, keeping the intensity going relentlessly throughout the entire 90 minutes.
The sometimes sticky role of Jacob Engstrand is slyly played by Brian McCardie, slippery as an eel and always thinking a few steps ahead of whoever he is in dispute with to gain the upper hand. Charlene McKenna was a spirited, feisty Regina, sure of her future with her employer's son and determined to rise above her place in life. The savageness of her fury at the shattering of her dreams was well played.
The other potentially sticky role is Oswald, the artist son who has returned from a libertine Paris life to confront his mother with his own secret. In some productions I have seen him played as less of a character and just a collection of symbolist metaphors but Jack Lowden played the role with a real humanity which made his sudden descent into a living limbo all the more affecting.
Will Keen, while not entirely banishing memories of Tom Wilkinson in the role, was a squirm-inducing Pastor Manders, full of self-righteous hypocrisy and sanctimonious smugness in a brilliantly conceived performance. He also managed to give Manders a humanity which made it possible to imagine why, when younger, Mrs. Alving ran to him to escape her tyrant of a husband.
I have seen Vanessa Redgrave, Judi Dench and Jane Lapotaire play Mrs. Alving but it struck me while I was watching her that Lesley Manville's was the most humane I have yet seen. Expertly paced, she first appears as a woman happy to explore new ways of thinking and confident in her future now she is free not only of the physical presence of her drunken lecherous husband but, thanks to her action of building an orphanage in his name out of his money, also free from any ties to her from beyond the grave.
But her attempt at freedom, like Regina and Oswald's, is soon unravelling as Captain Alving's actions do indeed reach back from the past, and Manville's horror that although she has deliberately squandered her husband's financial claim on their son, some inheritances are beyond her control was palpable and real.
Her distress at the realization of Oswald's future built and built until I was left poleaxed by the intensity of it all. I stumbled out into the Islington sunshine breathless from the tension and wondering how she would regroup to do that again for the evening performance.
The production plays until the 23rd November and although sold out, there are day seats released at 11am at the box office.