Friday, June 3, 2011

London Theatre 2011 - Part 2 - Much Ado About Nothing

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.

One of the things that I really admire about Brits, in terms of their approach to Shakespeare, is that they seem to remember that The Bard was a populist playwright. He wrote for the masses, and was never, ever afraid to go for the lowest-common-denominator. It's especially true of his comedies.

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.

It's a star-casting show. That's just fact. This production likely exists because Tennant and Tate wanted to do it. (Although, I was also amused that in the rehearsal photos in the program, Tennant is nowhere to be found.) The cast, the whole show, is built around these two actors.

Tennant is the more experienced stage actor. I don't think that's any secret, and it shows. The show trades mightily on slapstick (which is more than appropriate within Shakespeare, as far as I'm concerned). There is a sharpness and cleanness to how Tennant executed all of these gags that is just awesomely winning. Act II, Scene 3, where Benedick eavesdrops on Don Pedro, Leonato and Claudio, who feed him false information about Beatrice's love for him, was a showstopping ballet of slapstick. With a rotating stage, buckets of paint (which ends up smeared all over Tennant), and a can of beer with cigarettes in it (oh, ho! SPIT TAKE!!). All while wearing a Superman shirt, less we forget who the MVP here is.

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.

Then there's Catherine Tate. Alas, she's just not as comfortable on stage as David. Her timing is impeccable, but I never quite felt her make the connection to the deeper parts of Beatrice. She wasn't bad, or terrible, or anything so apocalyptic. There were moments that worked quite wonderfully, but the entire performance didn't gel in the way Tennant's did. It's really something I chalk up to experience. Tate simply hasn't been on stage as much, and there's no shame in being as good as she is, in the face of that.

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.

All that said, the scene where Beatrice and Benedict actually come together and profess (...kinda) their love for each other is pretty cracking. They play off each other so well, how could it not be. And Tate may not hit the bullseye directly, as other performances I've seen, but the moment when she asks him to kill Claudio did land effectively. The scene is very well paced to make the line drop like a bomb.

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.

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