Much Ado About Nothing at the Old Vic, London

WHEN I heard, at the end of last year, that Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones were going to be directed by Mark Rylance in a new production of Much Ado About Nothing at the Old Vic on London’s South Bank in September 2013, I booked my seats immediately.

So, with expensive tickets waiting to be used, I (along with many others, I imagine) was horrified to read the national reviews of the show – not mixed but pretty much uniformally dreadful. Having seen the Romeo and Juliet at Bristol Old Vic in 2010, with Sian Phillips and Michael Byrne in the title roles, I was not put off by the idea of older actors playing what are usually youngsters – in fact R and J are teenagers but there is no reason to think of Beatrice and Benedict in the bloom of youth.

Much has been made of the ages of Jones (82) and Redgrave (76), but the London critics were at pains to say their condemnation was not ageism.

So I went along on Saturday with some trepidation, but, as always, hoping to enjoy the experience in the beautiful little theatre. And enjoy it I certainly did – so much that I can’t really fathom why it has been so butchered in the press and on radio.

Let’s start by accepting that James Earl Jones has problems with the speech patterns. This is his first Shakespeare, and some of the words undoubtedly do get lost in his sonorous delivery.

And he is not a mobile man, though the criticism that he is unbelievable as a man returning from battle is spurious. Many old men have been valued as tacticians by armies over the centuries. Hannibal was in his 60s at the end of his glorious career. Monty was a old man when he retired, Julius Caesar was 66, Ghengis Khan was 75, Tojo was 63 …

They also picked up Benedict’s speech “ .. the world must be peopled…” as risible. Picasso fathered his last child at the age of 75, and there are Des O’Connor and Rod Stewart …

The American actor’s delivery, though pointed and memorable at times, was not perfect, but on stage with him, Peter Wight (unforgettable as Hieronimo in the 1997 RSC tour of The Spanish Tragedy at Plymouth) gave a masterclass in Shakespearean theatrical speaking. As the soft spoken friar, every syllable was as audible from the far reaches of the gods as from the front stalls.

Vanessa Redgrave brought her luminous and hypnotic presence to the role of Beatrice.

Here she and her Benedict were decades-old sparring partners with reputations as eternal spinster and bachelor. They underline the familiar script with an idea that they had intentionally foresworn romance and marriage to protect their own hearts, and suddenly, in old age, had felt that fierce, surprising power of love, empowering both – she from dungarees to a giddy dress, he from a complacent grouch to a roaring lion.

I don’t know how many times I have seen the play, but I have never seen the renunciation scene more powerfully done, nor felt the pathos of the mourning more keenly.

In this production, set in the 1940s, the returning fighters are US airforcemen, stationed near the village where Leonato, his daughter Hero, his neice Beatrice and his brother Antonio preside.

Commanding officer Don Pedro (James Garnon) with his recently reunited brother Don John, and his new favourite Claudio (Lloyd Everitt), return to the village, and Claudio immediately falls in love with Hero. But he has aroused the jealousy of the bastard Don John, and the furious man sets a plot to discredit Hero, so successfully that Claudio denounces her as a whore, at the “wedding.” She falls into a swoon and dies.

As first Hero’s father Leonato (played by Michael Elwin), then his brother Antonio (Alan David) and then Benedick challenge the young soldier, the word “boy” ringing round the theatre, the full horror of the situation is punched home as I have never seen it done before. When the plot is uncovered and Claudio and his comrades mourn the dead innocent, it’s done with the sound of a flypast.

There may be better, more conventional, productions of Much Ado than this one, but I suspect that when they fade into the morass of memory, this is one that will remain.

The Old Vic is easy walking distance from Waterloo, and you might just want to catch a train and take advantage of the chance to see it, whatever the metropolitan critics advise.

It’s on until 30th November.


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