Friday, April 18, 2008

Much Ado About Nothing

I went to see Much Ado About Nothing at the National Theatre about a month and a half ago and I've only just gotten round to blogging about it! I blame having to work weekends for the last month.

I'd been quite excited about going and seeing the play until about the week before, when the realisation that it was three hours (!) long and Shakespeare hit me. I'm not clever enough for that! I'll fall asleep, start snoring and get asked to leave, oh why did I book the tickets! My friend managed to catch the theatre-fear from me and both of us were less than enthusiastic about the play by the time we got there. As usual (due to circumstances beyond my control) I'm late and when we presented our tickets to the ushers, they said: "the plays just started" and hared off down the corridor, my friend and the usher sprinting away and leaving me to gallumph along in their wake. The only consolation I had was that another pair of theatre goers arrived at the same time and were directed at a hasty speed in the other direction. I'm at least not the only late comer.

What I hadn't realised was that the cheap seats at the side don't have a Row A, or they were removed for the stage and the seats that I had bought were in fact the front row which just made being late all the more excruciating, at least we were at the end of a row and didn't have to climb over everyone. Didn't stop the looks of disapproval though.

Anyway, the main roles of Beatrice and Benedick are taken by Zoe Wanamaker and Simon Russell Beale respectively and both were marvellous. Beatrice and Benedick love each other, but they don't want to admit it. They meet again after a long period of separation in which time Benedick has become an accomplished and respected soldier and Beatrice has comfortably settled into life living in her Uncle Leonato's house in Sicily and spends most of her time moderately tipsy.

Beatrice's cousin Hero (sweetly played by Susanna Fielding) falls in love with the dashing soldier Claudio (Daniel Hawkford). The soldiers are warmly welcomed and well fed by the generous Leonato (the wonderful Oliver Ford Davies), but the malevolent Don John (a villainous and brooding Andrew Woodall) is sullen and miserable because his brother Don Pedro (Julian Wadham) is an imperious and successful soldier. He envies his brother's power and is bitter at his own illegitimacy and so plots to ruin Don Pedro's most recent arrangement, the romance between Hero and Claudio, by casting aspersions on Hero's good character.

Meanwhile Bendick and Beatrice are sniping at one another at the masked ball and slowly realising that they still have feelings for each other. These are skillful and nuanced performances from both Zoe Wanamaker and Simon Russell Beale: warm, full and subtle. Benedick and Beatrice are both too obtuse to realise that the other still has feelings for them, but the other characters are quick to notice the resurgent emotions and decide to play at Cilla Black. In the morning in the garden by the pool, Benedick is having breakfast when he hears Don Pedro, Leonato and Claudio fast approaching, he hides, but the other men know he's there and besides the portly Simon Russell Beale is hard to miss, especially when trying to hide behind a 3 inch wide wooden pillar.

The Much Ado set revolves and during the ball scenes and the merriment at the end, while the actors are dancing, the floor is moving, not only that, the front row afforded a perfect view of the fact that occasionally the actors would have one foot on the revolve and one on the fixed stage. How did they not fall over? I have trouble even walking in flat shoes, so their admirable ability to frolic in these conditions is to be commended.

The men loudly exclaim that Beatrice is still madly in love with Benedick, all the while prowling about the stage forcing Benedick from one hiding place to another, when suddenly Benedick is stuck, he can't go anywhere without being caught eavesdropping, except one, the pool. So with a mighty splash, he actually cannonballs into the pool, to much incredulity and suppressed mirth from the others. Once the men leave, Benedick emerges from the pool looking like a seal and flops wetly about the stage wondering to himself if Beatrice does truly love him. Finally he wanders off happily to dry off before he dies of hypothermia and leaves the stage open for Beatrice to have the same trick pulled on her by the women of the house, even down to the dousing in the pool.

Poor Zoe Wanamaker has to heave around her sopping wet dress of many authentic layers which has, like a sheet of Bounty kitchen roll, soaked up the entire pool. Off she lurches to get wrung dry by an industrial mangle.

The plot to ruin Hero is hatched by Borachio (robustly played by Daniel Poyser) and has Don John's approval. The plan is for Borachio to canoodle with his lover Margaret (Niki Wardley) and pretend that it's actually the faithless Hero with her lover and on the night before her wedding too.

On the morning of the wedding, Hero twitters about happily and Beatrice sneezes and snuffles about, her cold appears to disappear very quickly as it's totally gone by the time the wedding begins.

All the main players are assembled for the wedding, though you would have thought that a society wedding for Leonato's daughter would've attracted more than a few Italian dignatories, but oh well. Claudio rejects a tearful and screeching hero and storms off followed by the rest of the soldiers bar Benedick who solemnly starts talking to Beatrice after Hero is taken away. The scene culminates in the "Kill Claudio" line, and despite exhortations to murder not being particularly funny, it got a laugh. Benedick is torn between his love for Beatrice and wanting to please her and his own sense of honour and decency.

Dogberry and Verges the Watchmen are played with comic brilliance by Mark Addy and Trevor Peacock. Peacock for example can grunt non commitally and get a round of applause and Mark Addy's circular speeches and constant contradictions bring a much needed obvious humour to the play.

Hero feigns her own death much to the consternation of Claudio who prostrates himself at her fake grave clad in sackcloth, mmm, scratchy, while a concealed Hero watches his distress and is now certain of his love. Their story ends when it is contrived for Claudio to marry Hero's cousin, who looks a lot like her.

Beatrice and Benedick after some more comic sniping kiss and settle down comfortably together on a bench, happy at last.