Much Ado About Nothing
by William Shakespeare
David Tennant and Catherine Tate star as reluctant lovers Benedick and Beatrice in Shakespeare's timeless comedy directed by Josie Rourke.
Art is not a competition. Since, however, this is the second Much Ado in five days, comparisons are inevitable. And, while Jeremy Herrin's version at Shakespeare's Globe has many admirable qualities, this West End revival is 20 minutes shorter, more socially specific and much sexier. The pairing of David Tennant as Benedick with Catherine Tate as Beatrice is a marriage that, if not made in heaven, is certainly cemented by television and pays off superbly.
They are helped by Josie Rourke's decision to set the action in early 1980s Gibraltar: a world of crisp navy uniforms, clear class distinctions and high-spirited post-Falklands partying. It provides a perfect excuse for leisured officers to trick Bea and Ben into falling in love. It also lends plausibility to the main plot in which Hero, on her wedding-eve, has supposedly betrayed Claudio with another man. Rourke here interpolates a whole new hen-party scene in which we see Hero's maid, wearing her mistress's wig, enjoying some noisy rumpy-pumpy in disco-club darkness. One of Shakespeare's most clumsy plot devices suddenly acquires credibility.
Rourke has made other changes such as endowing Hero's dad, Leonato, with a wife instead of a brother: a deft touch since it makes Hero's disgrace even more disruptive to the family. But, while I like the production's colourful circumstantial detail, one of Rourke's ideas misfires. Seeking to show Claudio's penitence over his mistreatment of Hero, Rourke has him attempting suicide at her tomb until she makes a ghostly appearance. I get Rourke's drift but it kills stone dead the later moment when Hero is discovered to be alive and well.
Down the ages people have always gone to this play to watch the verbal sparring of Beatrice and Benedick which anticipates 1930s Hollywood screwball comedy; and here Tate and Tennant give just the right suggestion that their byplay is the product of some past bruising encounter. Tennant is especially good at showing Benedick's transition from the self-conscious madcap of the officers' mess into a man capable of love. He makes his entrance in a golf-buggy, dons a Lily Savage wig and tight skirt for Leonato's party but is hit amidships when he learns that he is adored by Beatrice. The great comic moment in Tennant's performance comes when, flinging his arms wide to the heavens, he declares: "I will be horribly in love with her."
Tate gives an excellent account of Beatrice as the kind of larky, high-spirited woman who uses her wisecracking gifts as a defence against emotional engagement: significantly, while Benedick turns up at Leonato's party in female attire, she comes dressed as a man. I'd only beg Tate to resist a textual change made, presumably, out of political correctness. In the gulling scene Shakespeare's Beatrice says of Benedick: "I will requite thee, Taming my wild heart to thy loving hand." Tate substitutes "with" for "to" to soften the note of submission: totally unnecessary since there's no danger of this sparky couple ever being anything other than sexual equals.
They are at the centre of a supremely well-cast production in which Elliott Levey as a closeted Don John, Tom Bateman and Sarah MacRae as a vibrantly attractive Claudio and Hero and John Ramm as a hamfisted Dogberry all make their mark. Lucy Gaiger's costumes, combining naval whites with snazzy civilian colours, add greatly to the gaiety of an evening that suggests the Tate-Tennant partnership should be pursued. Why not try their hand at Restoration comedy or Coward's Private Lives?
"David Tennant doesn’t arrive on stage in a Tardis in this eagerly awaited new Much Ado, but he makes an almost equally spectacular entrance on a golf buggy festooned with Union flags in a show that undoubtedly does some spectacular time travelling.
In her witty and inventive production, Josie Rourke sets the action of Shakespeare’s great romantic comedy in Gibraltar in the 1980s, with Don Pedro and his men, among them Tennant’s Benedick, fetching up in Gibraltar after wars abroad. We are clearly invited to think of them as the Falklands task force returning in triumph.
Jonathan Coy’s Leonato is the Rock’s usually genial, pink-faced Governor, hosting the returning officers; his daughter Hero is dolled up in a Lady Di-like wedding dress for her disastrously interrupted nuptials; and Catherine Tate is her bolshie cousin, Beatrice, who frequently looks on the brink of delivering a sulky “Am I bovvered?” It’s a relief to report that she resists the temptation.
There is a huge amount of drinking and smoking in this production, ra-ra skirts make a terrifying comeback, and the masked ball becomes a fancy dress disco with Tennant dolled up in suspenders and black stockings.
Purists will doubtless baulk, but there is an outstanding traditional production of Much Ado now playing at the Globe, and Rourke’s production has a freshness and wit about it that is often irresistible.
The chemistry Tennant and Tate established in Dr Who survives in their performances as the disputatious lovers. Tennant, an old hand at Shakespeare, brings a fine mixture of wit, cynicism and sudden love-struck wonder to Benedick, speaks the language with Scottish-accented clarity, and proves highly sympathetic but never ingratiating.
I have reservations about Tate, however. She’s very funny in her bolshie sarcasm but never quite captures the poignant pain of a woman who hides deep hurt behind her wit. Indeed she often seems downright rude rather than amusing, and hysterical rather than funny. Calm down, dear.
But the production soars in the brilliantly staged scenes in which first Benedick and then Beatrice are duped into believing they are loved by the other. I don’t want to give too much away because surprise is of the essence here, but they involve a mixture of slapstick and flight that reduces the audience to a state of blissful hilarity. And the moment when they finally acknowledge their love, before Beatrice orders Benedick to prove it with the chilling line “Kill Claudio”, packs a terrific dramatic punch.
Among the supporting cast Tom Bateman gives a coruscating performance of sexual jealousy and remorse as Claudio, Elliot Levey is a superbly villainous Don John, so depraved indeed that he offers a cigarette to the young child who wanders through the action; and John Ramm is that rare thing, a genuinely funny Dogberry, played as a petty official with a Rambo complex.
Robert Jones’s designs are stylish and evocative, and Rourke’s production has a bubbling sense of mischief that darkens into chilling violence in the wedding scene. This, in short, is populist Shakespeare with both intelligence and heart. "
When David Tennant played Hamlet a couple of years ago, there was much bluster that he had only got the part because of his screen fame as a Time Lord, all entirely ignorant of his decade and more of Royal Shakespeare Company experience. I expect Catherine Tate will now suffer the same, although, in fact, I first saw her, like Tennant, on an RSC stage and have always admired her more as an actor than as a comedienne. Of course the principal selling point here is the reunion of the pairing at the centre of the 2008 season of the TV sci-fi series Doctor Who, but there is also a natural dynamic to their performances as the protagonists of Shakespeare’s romcom “merry war”.
Tate’s main persona is, let’s be honest, gobby: it makes her a natural as the quick-tongued Beatrice. In fact, she could probably be quicker-tongued on occasion and relish her lines less; but when she takes this to extremes by deploying one of her characteristic tactics, opening her mouth, as if enlarged by CGI, to devour a word or two (often “No”), the effect never fails to delight.
Tennant, who plays Benedick in his natural Scots accent, is more wry, but unafraid to charge into all-out pillock-mode by, say, appearing in Act Two’s masked ball scene in drag or accidentally daubing himself with paint during the eavesdropping routine.
Tennant can also find the gravity when matters take a sombre turn with the false accusation of the lady Hero’s infidelity, derailing the play’s other love match. However, unlike Jeremy Herrin’s production currently at Shakespeare’s Globe, Josie Rourke is here less concerned with showing the full breadth of the play’s dramatic palette. She deploys as much shadow as is necessary to keep matters in perspective, but her primary focus is on the up side.
This is emphasised by Peter Mumford’s wonderful pastiche score; Rourke and designer Robert Jones have set the action in 1980s Gibraltar, and Mumford has fashioned some authentic slices of period pop, coupling the words of Shakespeare’s songs to arrangements cloned from the likes of “Careless Whisper” and “Holding Out for a Hero”.
Rourke turns governor Leonato’s brother Antonio into his wife Imogen, more, I think, to get another woman onstage than for any more conceptual reason. Anna Farnworth complements Jonathan Coy’s Leonato, whose rage when he believes the allegations about his daughter is impressive.
Elliot Levey as villain-in-chief Don John seems a little uncertain in his wickedness; this too is a directorial decision that does not entirely work. In contrast, the low comedy of Dogberry is invested with all the well-meaning bumbling that is John Ramm’s trademark (as well as improbable military fatigues: I’ll just bet Rourke was musing on 80s emblems and the actor’s name morphed into Ramm-bo).
To say that there have been more complex readings of the play is not to decry this one simplistic. It does what it says on the tin, smartly and with verve. It takes no prophetic skill to forecast that it will be the feel-good hit of the summer.
Once a sparky double act in Doctor Who, David Tennant and Catherine Tate are reunited here in an effervescent interpretation of this pacy, sexy Shakespeare comedy.
Their chemistry is vibrant, and as the habitually bickering Beatrice and Benedick they spar with a lovely zing.
Director Josie Rourke, who next year takes over at the Donmar Warehouse, demonstrates her increasing aptitude for working with large casts and hallowed texts. Set in the Eighties at a naval base in Gibraltar, her production of this play about rumour, honour and deception ripples with originality.
Awash with crisp white uniforms and an air of MTV vulgarity, it's studded with telling details.
Tennant drives a golf buggy instead of a Tardis.
There are disco lights, strippers, brilliantly pastichey pop tunes by Michael Bruce, allusions to the 1981 royal wedding, a sex doll and - a personal highlight - some hopeless noodling with one of those cheap little Casio keyboards I coveted as a nine-year-old.
I have seen funnier productions of Much Ado, and more pungently intelligent ones, but Rourke's account oozes charm. It conveys the play's latent darkness, and she has made some astute changes that invigorate the plot.
Tennant is the star. It's not just his established fans who will savour his energetic performance. He invests his lines with a mixture of quicksilver wit and wiry physical excitement. Tate, though she has less range, proves adept at switching moods: one moment sardonic, the next touchingly vulnerable.
There is superb support, notably from Adam James as a very manly, worldly Don Pedro and Elliot Levey as a prim yet strutting Don John. There's also vivid work from Sarah MacRae and Tom Bateman.
Londoners are privileged at present to be able to see two first-rate accounts of Much Ado - the other is at the Globe. This one looks sure to be a big summer hit. It should introduce a generation of Dr Who addicts to Shakespeare's bantering wordplay and imaginative generosity.
Though the Globe production of Much Ado About Nothing has drawn its fair share of deserved plaudits, it was always in danger of being eclipsed by the Tennant/Tate version of the same play. But while there are many who will be coming to see the Doctor and Donna together on stage, Josie Rourke’s production is a joyful thing, easily one of the funniest and most exciting productions in the West End.
More than just being an exercise in ‘star casting’, David Tennant is, as has been repeatedly pointed out, an experienced Shakespearean actor, and it shows: his is a masterful and sure-footed performance. He delivers his lines with a brilliant sense of timing and just the right amount of emotion (and, delightfully, in his native Scottish accent). He’s a tremendously physical actor, and uses his lean, lanky frame to great effect, all emphatic gestures and expressive body language – the scene in which he ‘overhears’ that Beatrice is in love with him are wonderfully well executed and leave the audience almost breathless with laughter. The broad comedic strokes he was sometimes criticised for in his Doctor Who days play perfectly here, so that even up if you’re sat up in the cheap seats you don’t miss a thing.
He is equally convincing when things take their inevitably darker turn: again, fans of Tennant’s Doctor will be familiar with his ability to play the joker with the core of steel, and he does so with aplomb. His body seems to close up, his gestures become more contained, and you are left in no doubt that beneath his facetious facade, Benedick is truly a soldier.
Tate also fares well, even though she is clearly less comfortable with some of the language. Her Beatrice is the first I’ve seen where ‘stroppy’ is as good a description as ‘sharp’, but it’s a splendidly gutsy and likeable performance. Like Tennant’s, it’s also a tremendously physical one – her ‘overhearing’ scene, too, is a standout, with her flailing, helplessly suspended above the stage. She may fall back too easily on the comedy tics that have served her so well in the past (you wouldn’t be overly surprised for her Beatrice to repel a suitor with ‘am I bovvered?’) but it doesn’t really matter, as it serves the show well.
The pair’s proven TV chemistry also translates effortlessly onto stage: from their first sparring, the pairing crackles with energy and sexual tension that no amount of pratfalls can diminish, so that when they finally kiss there is a real passion there, and a sense of true love fulfilled.
Inevitably, given the star wattage of the main pairing, the production focuses much of its attention on them, but there are solid performances throughout. That said, the secondary couple do struggle to hold your interest; Sarah MacRae makes a sweet if not particularly memorable Hero, and Tom Bateman manages to make the difficult-to-like Claudio more sympathetic than most. Jonathan Coy also impresses as Leonato, first raging against his daughter then against her accusers; while Adam James as Don Pedro and Elliott Levey as Don John are respectively suitably regal and reptilian. Special praise should go to John Ramm, who manages to make something amusing from the Dogberry scenes, instead of the excruciating interludes they so often are.
The team of director Josie Rourke, designer Robert Jones and musical director Michael Bruce should also to be applauded. The decision to stage the action in the 1980s may add little in terms of nuance, but it certainly works from a comedy perspective: from the sartorial horrors of an 80s hen night to the ‘tribute to Princess Diana’ wedding dress, the clothes frequently had the audience laughing even before the actors had opened their mouths, and the decision to transform the often difficult songs into dance numbers, all 80s power chords and electronica, was simply inspired.
When it comes to West End excitement, there has already been much ado about the theatrical pairing of David Tennant and Catherine Tate in this Shakespearian comedy.
The duo have sparred across the centuries as Dr Who and his most argumentative sidekick Donna so expectations are high for their respective turns as Benedick and Beatrice, the Bard's most quick-witted and combative couple who trade insults like table-tennis and who have to be tricked into realising their true feelings for each other.
So can they live up to the hype?
Tennant is certainly on great sparring form as Benedick, the man who scoffs at love until he samples it.
He is more derisive than some but balances this by playing the clown with manic energy, displaying great comic timing and emphasis, while moving naturally from glib to grave.
Tate, making her Shakespeare debut, excels most when she's being scornful, effectively embodying Benedick's description of her as "My Lady Tongue".
Her bawdy Beatrice even works in a Frankie Howerd impression and she milks the slapstick in her eavesdropping scene which borders on panto with a Peter Pan-style flight.
For me, however, her performance lacks a little nuance and her character some vulnerability. In truth, while both Tate and Tennant look gleefully chuffed to bits when they discover each other's love, we believe more in their war of words than their romantic relationship.
They provide tremendous entertainment but their chemistry is surprisingly not the best thing about Josie Rourke's exuberant production, which gains great momentum and fun from being set in the hedonistic Eighties.
When the men enter in white naval suits and aviator glasses, it could be a scene out of Top Gun.
Benedick composes a love poem on a synthesiser, and as for the masked ball - which thumps to Eighties-style power ballads - it's full of ra-ra skirts and guests dressed as everyone from Adam Ant to Darth Vader.
If anyone wants to see David Tennant disguised as Miss Piggy in lace leggings and denim mini-skirt, now is their chance.
The romantic lovers Hero and Claudio are presented as a kind of Beach Barbie and Ken which highlights how their characters are somewhat plastic while Hero's Princess Diana mask and wedding-dress also hints that perhaps her "fairytale" wedding won't go to plan, either.
In fact, this production effectively stresses how the comedy could so easily have spilled into Romeo and Juliet-style tragedy by making Tom Bateman's emotional Claudio almost blow his own brains out when he believes his denouncement of Hero has caused her death.
High drama and high camp go hand in hand here and Rourke also takes a few liberties with the text, not least in giving Hero's mother a welcome voice.
Meanwhile, Elliot Levey is a ball of composed malevolence as a camp and nasal Don John, who even offers cigarettes to children. Boo hiss.
Overall this tremendously accessible production is a bit like the decade it's transposed to: brash and over-the-top but with the power to totally draw you in. A winner.
London Theatre Guide
"Last week, I saw 'Much Ado About Nothing' at the Globe, and now here's another version playing at Wyndham's, right in the heart of the West End. Comparisons are often invidious, but here's a rare chance to compare two productions of the same play, both on at the same time.
This version has the added glamour and audience pulling-power of TV stars in the lead roles. TV comedian and character actress Catherine Tate is Beatrice and a former Dr Who, David Tennant, is Benedick. With a time traveller in the lead, it was pretty obvious that the location for this version was going to move from the late 16th century. So, director Josie Rourke has switched the location from Sicily to Gibralter and the time also speeds ahead to the 1980s. Gibralter? Well, the idea is that the soldiers are now sailors and the fleet is taking a much-needed period of respite, presumably from the Falklands conflict.
David Tennant is simply superb as Benedick. He makes Shakespeare's language seem so natural you might think that it's the kind of stuff spoken on the streets of Glasgow on a daily basis. He's not so much the archetypal soldier though, or even naval officer. He's wiry rather than built like the side of a house. Even so, under the humerous façade, we discover an honest man with a real sense of justice who doesn't hesitate to put his friendship with Claudio on the line when he thinks his friend has wrongly maligned an innocent woman.
Catherine Tate employs her brilliant comic timing to maximum effect, drawing out words as if speaking to an idiot when she's sparring with Benedick. And she shows that she's more than capable of dealing with other emotions too, for example when her cousin's virtue is questioned in the church by Claudio, she breaks down in tears. However, she doesn't seem quite so confident when delivering the non-humorous lines, and struggles to match Mr Tennant's obvious natural gift with making Shakespeare's dialogue sound like the next-door neighbour talking over the fence.
The set is a mass of Venetian shutters, almost from floor to ceiling and surrounding the acting area. Four giant pillars sit in the middle and get rotated on a revolve which allows some fun with the scene where Benedick is hiding from his chums, during which he also gets covered in paint. Catherine Tate gets hauled up to the rafters on a wire when she's trying to eavesdrop on her cousin, and Benedick makes his first entrance on a golf buggy. The costumes are gaudily vibrant, reflecting the mood of the 80s, and the leads swap gender for a while during the masque with David Tennant in drag and Ms Tate donning a rather sinister outfit of suit, black hat and dark glasses.
There's first-class support here from Adam James as the benevolent Don Pedro, and Jonathan Coy as Leonato switches effortlessly from genial host, to embittered parent when his daughter's virtue is wrongly brought into question. And Tom Bateman is a devilishly handsome Claudio who will, no doubt, have admirers swooning in the aisles.
So, what about the comparison with the Globe version? Well, they are very, very different. In their own ways, both are excellent productions with the two pairs of leading actors turning-in admirable performances. I think this version is the funnier of the two with both Catherine Tate and David Tennant in terrific comic form. And the support here just has the edge with near-perfect casting. The night watch are better here, with John Ramm leading the neighbours as a Rambo-like Constable Dogberry who also highlights the malapropisms to greater effect. Even so, it's still not as funny as some versions I've seen, which proves just how difficult it is to get this part of the play completely right. Other than that, there's nothing much to quibble about with this version of 'Much Ado' as Josie Rourke's directorial vision is crystal-clear and cohesive with nothing left to chance. The result is deliciously entertaining. "
THE Doctor might be a Time Lord but he never seems to have much time for women.
David Tennant did slightly better than most when he was the custodian of the TARDIS but Catherine Tate’s Donna was just a mate.
Yet the Doctor Who stars get it together as squabbling Benedick and Beatrice, above, in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. This hilarious adaptation is set on the Costa del Sol in the 80s – it’s the Bard styled by Wham!.
Benedick arrives home from war and he and Beatrice soon become frontline troops in the battlefield of love. Tate may be the comedian but Tennant gives a comic tour de force as the reluctant lovers trade vicious barbs like boxers at a weigh-in.
He is a revelation – and it’s worth the admission fee just to see him in a miniskirt and boob tube.
There is much to love here and nothing to fault.
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