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On the most basic level Much Ado About Nothing at the Old Vic should have been absolutely brilliant if for nothing else than the two leads. James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave are arguably two of the best Shakespearean actors of their generation from either side of the Atlantic. They also clearly enjoy working with one another as this project seems sparked by their previous stint in the West End in Driving Miss Daisy, so chemistry should not have been a problem either. Yet the production got slated by the critics and it was indeed disappointing. The high point for me was that at the matinee I saw Vanessa Redgrave was off and the excellent Penelope Beaumont was in her stead.

After seeing Gregory Doran’s Richard II at the RSC (review to be published in Shakespeare Bulletin, possible scratchings to come after I’ve finished that) and The Winter’s Tale in Sheffield (musings here), to come back to mediocre Shakespeare was dull in the extreme. And that was largely the problem with Much Ado: it was exceedingly dull and lacklustre. Without seeing it multiple times (and since I didn’t take notes), I can’t comment on nuances within the production but there were several things that were worth noting in the staging.

The director seemed to make no compromises to the fact that he was no longer at the Globe’s open air space with its square stage in close proximity with a portion of its audience standing in the yard. Mark Rylance’s designer had provided a set that was a polished wooden surface, doors that opened at the back like a large aircraft hanger and a square canopy that stood centre stage crafted from the same polished wood as the rest of the set. No doubt due to the presence of Jones, Rylance had set it on or near a US Air Force base during World War II (ish), which turned Benedick, Don Pedro and their comrades – including Don John, Borachio and Conrade – into USAF officers. On a logical basis, this makes no sense given the wars are over at the beginning of Shakespeare’s play.

Shakespeare himself is also key – although the director loves Shakespeare so much that he thinks the playwright’s actually Edward de Vere. Which may explain the dismal use of text (or not). Having both worked with directors and observed the rehearsals of others (see piece on David Thacker’s rehearsals here) who are meticulous in their attention to text, Rylance’s method was blatantly obviously one that had little connection with the words other than that his actors said their lines. No nuance was pulled out of the script, little emotion that wasn’t provided through technique (i.e., faked) was present in the delivery and almost every scene contained extraneous background business that distracted from what was being said, rather than added to it (which is one of the best indicators, I find, that the text has been worked with only on the most superficial of levels). For example, when the audience is supposed to be finding out why Don John is so unpleasant, characters were scurrying around upstage placing chairs, moving furniture, and just walking across the stage on the pretext of setting up the next scene (the revels), preventing the audience’s concentration on the important dialogue taking place downstage. In well-staged productions, this scene change happens between scenes but in Rylance’s the eye was completely distracted by the business to the point that I wasn’t listening to the words; the text was superfluous to the action rather than the action coming out of the text. This happened throughout the production.

As touched on before, the setting was also layered on to Shakespeare’s script rather than being an organic part of it. Yes, there needs to be a military-infused element to it but very specific questions need to be asked about the society in which the play takes place, not least of which are those dealing with ideas of patriarchy, honour and male attitudes to women. These can be difficult concepts for a contemporary audience to comprehend – despite the fact that women are still disadvantaged in the workplace and domestic abuse, both physical and mental, is still present – because as a society we no longer overtly (key word: overtly) tolerate the idea that women are property and a woman’s chastity linked to male concepts of honour. Productions that succeed in drawing out these elements are often those that place the play in a society that parallels the action of the play, for example John Barton’s 1976 British Raj setting and Gregory Doran’s 2002 Sicilian omerta-infused 2002 productions. Doran’s in particular highlighted the notion of women as property with the result a particularly violent rebuttal of Hero by not only Claudio but Leonato and an Antonio who menacingly threatened Claudio with a switchblade. I have written about it at length in my thesis and in the shorter article Much Ado, Sicilian Style” (available here), but essentially Leonato’s language in the church scene is unpleasant in the extreme as he threatens his daughter with death because she has sullied the family’s honour – there is no room for doubt in Leonato’s head that his daughter could be slandered; he believes the men, not the women. None of this was apparent in Rylance’s production largely because the setting was not a society associated with this mindset; Leonato paced and yelled and circled the large wooden object in the middle of the stage, but his shouting was over-compensating for an incomprehension of Shakespeare’s text (it goes back to lack of work on the script).

In short, Rylance’s directorial style was clearly lazy with too much movement and seemingly no work done on the script. When Jones did get his teeth into it, he began to soar – but those moments were rare and were just that: moments. Penelope Beaumont rocked it, though – very strong, assertive and funny.