So, before we ever left on the trip, I found out that David Tennant and Catherine Tate would be opening a new production of Much Ado About Nothing in the West End. Being large Doctor Who fans, especially of the 4th season of the revived version of the show, which co-starred Tennant and Tate, we actually booked seats for a preview before we even left. I want to make it very clear, we saw a preview performance.
For me, too many American productions just get mired in their own importance. Tied up in the literary aspects, instead of just putting on a good show. Hell, the Shakespeare comedies are filled with asides to the audience that border on stand-up.
This production grabs hold of that element fiercely. The script is edited pretty severely, and the staging and production decisions are all pretty broad. The show wants you to leave feeling entertained, and will go to great lengths to get there.
The show is set in the 80's, with the soldiers under Don Pedro stopping off at Gibraltar on their way back from combat in the Falklands. I found the copious notes in the program about both the 80's and Gibraltar kinda ridiculous. It was plainly clear the time period was chosen because of the amusing costuming possibilities, both during the costume party (Darth Vader, Indy Jones, Werewolf Michael Jackson, and Princess Leia all appear), and the rest of the show. It's a fair choice to make, amusing almost to a fault, but really...trying to say that something organic within the text brought director Josie Rourke to say, "this MUST be set in the 80's!!" is pushing it.
He then whips into the soliloquy that (nearly) ends that scene, and the full-on hambone that we all knew lurked within Tennant erupts. I'd guess the speech played at least twice as long than as written, simply due to David (I'm tired of writing "Tennant") playing the crowd. Oh yeah, he mugged, he pandered for laughs, and generally turned on the charm that's made him beloved by Who fans. Again, I wasn't bothered by this, as it seems to me to be well within the realms of what Shakespeare's comedies are, and playing to the groundlings. I've described the scene to others, who have been horrified at the whole idea. Your mileage may vary.
Not to say that I was completely bowled over by Mr. Tennant. I felt a bit short changed by the moment when Benedict asserts his intention to kill Claudio. (I'm writing this with the belief that most of my readership knows the story of Much Ado About Nothing...if you don't, maybe try here.) The moment fell a bit flat because I just didn't really feel Benedict was all that dangerous. I mean, in my mind, this character works best when his soldier (they all are), can act like such a lout, and be flippant about everything, because he's got nothing to prove. He can become the warrior the moment it's needed. Tennant doesn't quite get there.
There's another slapstick piece for the companion scene with Benedict, with flying harnesses and other shenanigans. It's just not as funny, and even a bit labored. Certainly not as sharply executed, which is really stunning because the Benedict scene is much, much more physically complicated. It also just wasn't as logical, with certain gags just drawing attention to themselves as gags, instead of feeling like an action any rational person would really take.
No one's going to call this a transcendent production of Much Ado About Nothing. It's not a show that's going to take your breath away. (Although it certainly did for the teenage girl two seats down from me, who kept muttering "I love him, I love him" from the moment David Tennant walked on stage.) However, as a fan of both these actors, it was well worth the time and money. It's a highly energized, fast paced, entertaining version of the show. It's lightweight, and, let's be honest, Much Ado is a pretty lightweight show.