Much Ado About Nothing- Old Vic Theatre

Much Ado about Nothing
As seen in The Old Vic in London, England
Written by William Shakespeare
26 October 2013Some Cupid kills with arrows, some with traps.”
Much Ado about Nothing
by William Shakespeare

Since my first reading of Much Ado About Nothing almost two years ago, it has become one of my favorite plays. So when I saw that there was going to be a production of Much Ado About Nothing with Mark Rylance directing (I had seen him as Olivia in Twelfth Night), and with James Earl Jones (the voice of Darth Vader in the original Star Wars movies) and Vanessa Redgrave, I booked my ticket almost a year in advance. Little did I know that I would almost not make the show due to my health, but thankfully I was able to make the trip to London to see this unique twist on the play; Beatrice and Benedick are played by senior citizens.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the plot, I will give you a summary. A wealthy man named Leanato, has a daughter as an heir (Hero) and is the guardian of his niece (Beatrice). After returning from a war/skirmish the Prince (Don Pedro), his bastard brother (Don John, the man Pedro had been fighting), and his men stop by Leanato’s estate and are invited to stay for a month. In the company men is Benedick, a man in “a merry war of wits” with Beatrice. The two of them take every opportunity to try and outwit the other, both professing a desire to never fall in love or marry. They are the main source of comedy. Also in the Prince’s company is Claudio, a man who has shown a lot of bravery in the fighting. He becomes instantly enamored with Hero when they meet. The Prince decides it is a good match and tries to help by wooing Hero for Claudio. Don John tries to sabotage this, but is unsuccessful. Don John then decides to try and stop the marriage by calling Hero’s virginity into question.

At the same time, the Prince, with help, decides to try and cause Beatrice and Benedick to fall in love with each other, mostly relying on eavesdropping and staged conversations. However, Don John’s nefarious plan works, and at the altar, Claudio and the Prince publicly shame Hero and storm off. Trying to buy time to figure out what has happened, the friar suggests that they pretended Hero has died and let time try to unravel what happened. Benedick stays with Leanato’s family, and acts with the family against his friends because of his love for Beatrice. Beatrice and Benedick have an amusing revelation of feelings, but Beatrice demands that Benedick does not love her if he will not challenge Claudio to a duel over Hero’s honor. The Prince and Claudio show only a little remorse that Hero has died, as they still believe they are correct, even after almost fighting with Leanato. They are surprised when Benedick is stoic around them and not his usual jovial self, and are shocked when he challenges Claudio to a duel and turns in his request to leave the Prince’s company/army. At the same time the comically, bumbling neighborhood watch have gotten a confession from the man who helped to frame Hero, and the whole plan comes to light. Claudio and the Prince beg Leanato to decide their punishment for their part. Leanato decrees that they are to tell the World that Hero was pure. He also decrees that he has a “niece” who is just like Hero, and Claudio must marry her the next day. At the wedding it is reveled that the “niece” is actually Hero, and she had hidden until the truth was revealed. Surprising almost everyone, including themselves, Benedick and Beatrice also marry (after some of their bad sonnets to each other are found and presented). And then everyone dances (honestly that is how it ends!).

My very first thought after the play ended was how disappointed I was. While on paper it sounded like such a neat twist, the play just fell flat in pretty much every way. There were problems with the actors, the lines/memorization, the set (was boring), and the costumes didn’t really add anything to the plot. I was surprised when the lights dimmed to start the play, I thought it was strange that there were so many empty seats, but by the end I completely agreed. There were also a lot more empty seats after the intermission. It might have been better for me to have missed the show and just kept dreaming what it could have been.

The main issue with the main characters was James Earl Jones, he was just too old. While he still has the voice of a god, and such gravitas, unfortunately the character of Benedick is a quick witted character. Jones seemed to struggle with some of his lines, and none of them were delivered quickly. In fact several of his (and other actors’) lines were spoken over the top of each other making it hard to understand. Many of his scenes also seemed to include sitting, and even napping, which makes me wonder if Jones’s health is not that great. Also considering he is traveling with soldiers, he certainly didn’t look like a soldier.

However, I did love Redgrave. She was funny, and so full of energy. I did feel that perhaps she was trying to make up for Jones’ stillness, but it was a welcome relief. Honestly, I wanted to see more of her on the stage, as she just seemed to make the other characters smile and feel better. I think if both actors were of her energy level it might have worked.

The set was one of the most disappointing things about the play. I thought there might be a really intricate or beautiful set as it seemed like the play should have a decent budget. However, the set consisted of a mostly empty stage, with a freestanding wood box (two tall wood walls with a third across the top leaving the middle open). It was really boring and didn’t really help me imagine where the scenes were taking place.

There were several things that I did like. The concept behind the costumes was a good idea, even if it wasn’t used to the best effect. The Prince and soldiers were black US airmen during WWII staying with friends in Europe. I really loved seeing some diversity on the stage. The night watch scene was also very funny, with the watch being made of boy and girl scouts.

Final Verdict: A disappointment all around and the only saving grace is the script that is over 400 years old. Watch a better version on DVD.

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