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Much Ado About Nothing
The production is set in England at the end of the Second World War with American GIs returning from active military duties. This means that James Earl Jones only has to grapple with the Shakespearean verse rather than an artificial accent as well. So the Americans wear uniform and the women 1940s clothing with Ultz's sparse set reflecting post war austerity or maybe an overspend on cast salaries. A square partition "arch" in vinyl dark striped "wood" further encloses the space and interferes with the sound clarity.
Redgrave is strong vocally but she is stooped despite the bravado dress of old fashioned jodphurs and smoking a cigar. Mr Jones covers his rotund girth with an army boiler suit and sprawls in an armchair leaning back, knees akimbo, in that classic "I am a man in control" pose. But those fast lines spoken by Benedick at the beginning of the play, full of wit and puns, are delivered rapidly and at the interval people were asking each other whether they were the only ones who couldn't hear the words. He improves as he reflects on what he has heard about Beatrice being so in love with him and speaks more slowly. The sexual chemistry between the two leads fails to convince and so that wonderful moment when they eventually fall for each other and Benedick comes to the aid of poor Hero (Beth Cooke) had less impact.
When Peter Wight appears as both Dogberry and with the help of an onstage quickie change, as Friar Francis we cheer up because his experience with the RSC means we have someone who can speak the Shakespearian verse. I liked too the Count, Don Pedro (James Garnon, long a Globe comrade of Rylance) and Danny Lee Wynter as his scheming and plotting bastard brother and architect of the villainy, Don John. Beth Cooke too is promising, here as Hero the spurned bride.
Rylance's production doesn't rise to the great tradition of the Old Vic, Burton and Gielgud's Hamlet and many great examples of the art of the Bard, and I do hope for their tender psyches that Redgrave and Earl Jones do not read reviews. While Rylance may be one of our greatest idiosyncratic actors of the current generation, I did wonder whether his Benedick could have fitted better with La Redgrave. His directorial skill was honed at the open air Globe where all too often crowd pleasing was the agenda of the night. Taking from the Globe tradition a finale dance cheers us all up and we agree that the second act was better than the first.
As Dogberry says, "When the age is in, the wit is out."
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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