Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Giddy Thing: Much Ado About Nothing at London’s Wyndham’s Theatre (August 29, 2011)

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on September 21, 2011. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.


There are worse ways to spend a summer night in London than in a lush West End theatre watching a high-octane Shakespeare production, but I have to confess that my girlfriend and I hadn’t actually planned for it. Coming on the heels of a much more orderly two and a half weeks in France, our time in London had a satisfying seat-of-your-pants feel to it, since it was essentially a pit stop en route from Paris to our final destination in Scotland But even months earlier, when all we’d confirmed about our time in the UK were our arrival and departure dates, there was one thing we were certain of: we knew exactly where we would be on Saturday August 27 at 19:00 GMT. That night we’d be sitting in front of a TV screen watching the much-anticipated fall premiere of Doctor Who. The preceding episode of the season had aired way back in early June, and I have no shame in confessing that our twin geek hearts were genuinely aflutter with the mere idea of watching the show’s return live on British soil. (Europe is lovely yes, but we’d let our travelling interfere with our TV watching quite enough at that point in our month-long trip!) And so perhaps you can imagine our excitement when, while looking for the entrance to the Charing Cross tube station, Jessica and I stumbled serendipitously upon Wyndham’s Theatre. There, on the marquee, were the shining faces of David Tennant and Catherine Tate – both of Doctor Who fame! – headlining as Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. No doubt all the stars in heaven had conspired to bring us to this very moment: these were our last two days in London, and it turned out to be the last week of the show’s 3-month run. We simply had to see this play.

David Tennant and Catherine Tate in Doctor Who
And so, on the morning of Monday August 29, Jessica and I got up early and stood in line for that day’s lottery, hoping to secure two of the few remaining seats for that evening’s sold-out performance. We weren’t alone, it turned out. The line outside the theatre that morning was well-populated, but buoyant. Many were coming to see the show for a second time, and true to form, the conversations we had were less about Elizabethan theatre than that Saturday’s Doctor Who episode. In the end, we left with two standing room tickets, and were grateful for them! We spent the rest of the day enjoying the Tate Modern and following a quick visit to a nearby pub, we got to the theatre a half hour early (as we’d been advised to do by the lovely woman and rabid David Tennant fan, we’d met in line that morning) in order to secure a good standing spot for ourselves. It turned out we needn’t have worried: Wyndham’s is a fairly intimate space (especially in the Stalls), and the back of the house had a clear, unobstructed view of the whole stage. And so we waited, and watched, as every seat in the sold-out house slowly filled up.

At 7:30, the lights dimmed. And Catherine Tate stepped out from behind the curtain, clearly in costume for her first scene. We instantly knew that this didn’t bode well. To the crowd’s audible groans, she reported that on the strong advice of a voice specialist, David Tennant would not be performing that night. Apparently Tennant had lost his voice, and stepping in for him as Benedick would be his understudy, Alex Beckett, taking on the role for the very first time. After three months and 105 performances, this would be the first time Tennant and Tate wouldn’t be performing the show together. (It turns out that Tennant would also miss the next evening’s show, returning to the stage on Wednesday.) The audience couldn’t hide their distress, but Tate’s good natured, and clearly sincere, sympathies went a long way to soften the blow. But I can’t deny that my heart fell when I heard the news. I looked to Jessica for some sense of how I should be reacting to this, and for a few seconds read in her face the same fear that must have been visible in mine: after all the anticipation, was the evening going to be a huge disappointment? But seconds later as the curtain began to rise, I could see the smile quickly return to Jessica’s face as the excitement of a live Shakespeare performance took hold once again.

Catherine Tate and David Tennant as Beatrice and Benedick
Josie Rourke’s production relocates the play’s action from the Sicilian port town of Messina in the 17th century to a sunny Spanish resort island – perhaps the British territory of Gibraltar – in the early 1980s. The British naval base at Gibraltar was in fact a launching pad for the UK’s military operations in the Falklands in 1982, implying a contemporary context and background to the fighting Much Ado’s officers are returning from. The '80s era also provides an excuse for indulging in some period music, costumes, and hair styles. (Though composer Michael Bruce’s Wham-inspired “Hey Nonny Nonny” would more than justify Rourke’s choice of era on its own merits!) The only other significant modification to Shakespeare’s script was the inspired decision to give Hero’s normally silent mother Innogen (Anna Farnworth) lines originally attributed to Leonato’s older brother, and Hero’s uncle, Antonio. Not only does it give the script another meaty woman’s role (instead of implying Beatrice is the only strong female for a 100 miles), her more sympathetic response to her daughter’s humiliation in the wedding scene gives much needed balance to Leonato’s initially less forgiving reaction.

Admittedly, my disappointment over Tennant’s absence wouldn’t dissipate all at once. I have to confess that at the beginning I was caught up in a “I can almost imagine how Tennant would have done that scene” feedback loop, but Beckett (whose beard and distinctively curly hair gave Benedict an infectious impish quality) took about 10 minutes to win me over – and his performance seemed to have the same effect on the most of the audience. Tate, it should be noted, may have been born to play Beatrice. As the scenes between Benedict and Beatrice moved through verbal sparring, to slapstick comedy, to poignant intimacy, Tate’s uproarious mix of cynicism and sensitivity shone through Beatrice’s every line.

Alex Beckett
And in the end, I think the nervous energy of the audience seemed to actually invigorate the cast. The whole company was uniformly tight, and right out of the gate Alex hit every cue and every gag as if he he’d been performing it for months. Much Ado About Nothing is Shakespeare’s answer to the golden age of screwball comedies: an Elizabethan His Girl Friday or Bringing Up Baby. The “merry war” waged between Benedick and Beatrice is the heart of the play, and no doubt the longstanding chemistry between Tennant and Tate was one of the production’s most precious assets. But even knowing how natural the chemistry between Tate and Tennant can be from Season 4 of Doctor Who, it is difficult for me to imagine it could have been stronger – or more laugh out loud funny – than what I saw that night between her and Beckett.

The rest of the cast was also uniformly strong. Adam James’ Don Pedro was a high energy charmer – spot on for the Prince. James (most familiar to me from a two-time guest spot on BBC’s Hustle) was a joy to watch on stage, and when he spoke, you could look nowhere else. The Prince is a juicy role, but to be true to the story, his likeability needs to be balanced by his capriciousness, especially the ease and eagerness with which he takes on the machinations which are so central to the show’s plot. Spurned by Beatrice, Don Pedro is the one who initiates the plan which brings Beatrice and Benedick together (a deception which of course ends well), but those same aspects of his character also lead him to conspire with Claudio on the plan to publicly humiliate poor Hero on her wedding day when they believe her to be unfaithful. There’s a dangerous quality to the Prince: quick to act, but unreflective and callous with the lives and feelings of others, even (it has to be said) Benedick and Beatrice.

Claudio (played by newcomer Tom Bateman, in his professional debut) has a much trickier road to travel. While Don Pedro can leave the stage by the show’s end with his roguishness intact, Claudio has a lot to atone for between Act IV and Act V for the play’s final moments to work. His cruel treatment of Hero – motivated, to be sure, by genuine and deep feelings of betrayal and hurt – cannot be easily pushed aside by most audiences. Bateman plays the part well and with confidence, and Rourke’s direction helps immeasurably, allowing their Claudio to come across with balance and sensitivity.

Tom Bateman as Claudio
The best comedies of Shakespeare have elements of subtle (and not-so-subtle) darkness – Malvolio’s fate in Twelfth Night always haunts me long after that play ends – and Much Ado is no exception. To the director’s credit, she didn’t shy away from these moments – often highlighting them. Notably, the wedding scene in Act IV was horrifying to witness. With the cruelty of Claudio, the anguish of Hero, and the portrayal of a father who, for several key minutes, appears to value his own reputation over his daughter’s life, it was difficult to not turn away. It is a lot of weight for a comedy to bear, especially so close to its end. It is always surprising to be reminded that Act IV of Much Ado bears an uncomfortable similarity with Act IV of Romeo and Juliet, and Rourke makes those parallels all the more emphatic by taking Claudio to the brink of Romeo’s fate. Believing himself responsible for his death, the production shows us Claudio, overwhelmed by grief and guilt, stumbling drunkenly to Hero’s ‘tomb’, a boombox in one hand and a gun in the other. (The dialogue-free scene was so dramatic that for an uneasy few seconds, I genuinely thought I’d forgotten how the show usually ends!) Having Claudio flirt with a guilt-ridden suicide attempt before reluctantly agreeing to his scripted penance (marrying “Hero’s cousin” in the play’s final scene) does a lot to bring Claudio closer to his required redemption.

But in the end, the night belonged to Alex Beckett. With only two-hours notice (and with an audience no doubt determined to be disappointed), he stepped firmly into a world-class production, and brought it home. At the curtain calls, the crowd gave Beckett a well-deserved standing ovation. It was, quite simply, a remarkable night at the theatre.

That evening reminded me precisely what the real joy of attending live theatre can be. Live performances are unpredictable, and that is often what is best, and sometimes what is worst, about them. But in the end you go to live production knowing that, whatever else happens, you are going to see a singular performance. Even with identical casts and crew, the fact is that no two live performances are ever the same. But that night this was particularly true: we saw an amazing show, yes, but it was also truly a show that no-one else had ever seen before. We were treated to a unique combination of the seamlessness of a well-oiled machine – a show over 3 months into its mostly sold-out run – and the thrill of an opening night!

Alex Beckett, Jessica, and me after the show
Catherine Tate had set the tone right off the bat: that night, we were all in something together. One of the unique features of live theatre comes from that connection that develops between the performers on the stage and the people in the audience over the course of a performance, a bond that ties everyone together into a temporary artistic community. Jessica and I may not have seen David Tennant perform that night, but we left the theatre that evening elated and buoyant, having been a part something special and unrepeatable.

Much Ado About Nothing ran at Wyndham's Theatre in London from May 16-Sept. 3, 2011.