Thursday, 26 September 2013

Non-review: Much Ado About Nothing (Old Vic)

The "nothing" in Much Ado About Nothing has been ascribed many punning meanings. It was Elizabethan slang for "vagina," which fits in with the sexual deceit at the heart of the plot. Less interesting people insist it's in fact a pun on "noting," meaning gossip. Mark Rylance's production at the Old Vic has found a whole new relevance to "nothing," as the answer to the question "how much of the script will James Earl Jones have memorised by the first preview?" A few weeks on and Jones has at least managed to keep the blank pauses to a minimum, but frankly knowing what the words are seems irrelevant in a production when they're often inaudible, and when they can be heard they're being thrown away. Regular readers of this blog will both know a "not-review" is when I want to comment on a show but feel something makes me unqualified to call it a review. Very rarely, that something is me leaving at the interval.

There's a great premise here - Much Ado About Nothing revolves around soldiers spending some downtime at a mansion, and with an American male lead Rylance sets it among GIs visiting a country house in England while stationed here during World War II. Ultz has factored the conceit into the costumes but seems to have forgotten it when it came to the stark set, a vast wooden room, empty except for a huge box in the middle whose main purpose seems to be killing the acoustics.

The attention on this production has not only been on its stars, but also the fact that Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones are at least twice the age of most Beatrices and Benedicks. I didn't see any particular problem with the idea of a geriatric romance, although given the story's context I did wonder how it would make sense that an 82-year-old man was a junior officer in active combat (it doesn't.) Having seen Jones remain confident on stage in recent years nobody really thought that memory might become a problem but apparently it was an obvious one earlier on in the run, and still is at times now. For the most part he carries on steadily, although what with the set sucking up half his lines I can't guarantee that he's not, as some have suggested, actually cobbling his lines together on the spot.

In any case, whether Jones can remember his lines or not isn't even the production's biggest problem, it's what he and everyone else on stage does with those lines. They're rushed when they should be dwelt on, dragged out when they should be sped up, and most painfully of all delivered with seemingly no understanding of the fact that they're meant to be funny, let alone of how this might be achieved. With sparring lovers so old their bus passes have got bus passes, we were never going to see them plunging into a pool like Simon Russell Beale and Zoë Wanamaker, or hanging from the flies like Catherine Tate, but if they couldn't be all-action at least they could have given the gulling scene's lines some attention, but what can be one of the funniest scenes you can put on a stage probably wouldn't even register as a setpiece to a newcomer (oh please let there be as few newcomers as humanly possible, the fewer people put off Shakespeare for life by this the better.)

When Redgrave threw away "Why, he is the Prince's jester," I had to stop myself from groaning out loud. By the time Jones did the same to "The world must be peopled" I was resigned to it. The leads are simply the most prominent case of this, Rylance has failed to get any of his cast - which includes Shakespearean old hands like Globe mainstay James Garnon as Don Pedro - to engage with the text. "Special" mention has to go to Danny Lee Wynter for playing Don John as a bizarre cross between Dr Evil and Bobcat Goldthwait. The interval couldn't come quickly enough, and once it did it took little time for Vanessa and me to decide to cut our losses - I'd been tempted to run out during, if we're being honest, because the tedium was bad enough but seeing it imposed on Much Ado was downright painful. Watching this was like watching a friend being bullied and not being able to do anything about it. Maybe Rylance should have spent less time trying to figure out who wrote Shakespeare (spoiler: Shakespeare did) and more on what was written.

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare is booking until the 30th of November at the Old Vic.

Running time: Advertised as 2 hours 45 minutes including interval (I can't confirm if this is accurate.)


  1. Oh no.

    We have tickets for this on 16th Nov. Guess that's going to be closing night.
    Maybe we'll get lucky and it will close early?

    1. I suspect star casting alone will keep it full enough to complete its run. Or, god help us, school parties getting scarred for life.