There’s been a healthy hype gathering around Mark Rylance’s production of Much Ado About Nothing, mostly because of his two lead actors’ profiles and age. Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones take to the stage as the warring duo, Beatrice and Benedick in a production that, rather spectacularly, fails to live up to this hype.
It begins promisingly, as crooning ’40s jazz music vibrates around the theatre, creating a toe-tapping whimsy which puts the audience in a thoroughly good mood. This jolly atmosphere is gradually deflated by the heaviness of the set and acting, which also lacks levity and energy.
Mark Rylance has set Much Ado in 1944; however, the change of era adds little to the play – especially since we barely see the change. Leonato’s household wear army green knits and Don Pedro’s company stride around in 40s American army uniform. So far, so vintage. But Ultz’s design looks oddly like an oak art installation, as the entire set is wood-panelled with a looming square frame in the middle.
Moreover, it is wholly inadequate for the demands of the play. Its extreme, lifeless simplicity drain what energy the acting had and give nothing back. The garden scene needs careful choreography, something imaginative and creative in the set design to interact with. Ultz’s design provided neither. The scene was reduced to uninspired, awkward shuffling around the frame. This gave rise to a few half-hearted chuckles in a scene that should be the comic apex of the first half, if not the entire play.
This pointed to the production’s most devastating problem: the hilarity and sheer joy that make this play so popular were rarely evident onstage. I felt my soul die, slowly, as a great comedy was turned into an awkward and frankly boring affair.
Don Pedro refers to ‘revelling’ in the evening, but the dinner scene was woefully empty of any sense of celebration. The programme referred to images of packed music halls in wartime Britain, yet Rylance’s production failed to evoke to the vibrant wartime spirit it supposedly assumed.
As for Beatrice and Benedick’s ‘merry war’, it was neither merry nor warlike. Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones barely inspired their dynamic characters with the comedy and vivaciousness they occupy on the page. Unusual casting choices can enliven a classic, but if Rylance made a point of casting old actors in normally young roles he (frustratingly) went no further in exploring the new dynamic created.
When we saw Jones lowering himself slowly into a box to hide from Don Pedro and co., the effect was more uncomfortable than comic; Rylance didn’t make us laugh at what undeniable limitations Jones’ age placed on his acting, so we winced.
This is all the more tragic as Redgrave and Jones can command great performances, and have proven their theatrical alchemy with their shared success in Driving Miss Daisy. It was confusing and disappointing, then, to see such pale performances.
Equally lacklustre were the rest of the cast; in particular, Beth Cooke and Lloyd Everitt were uninspiring as Hero and Claudio, showing little sense of the speechless young love that Beatrice jokes about.
Shakespeare’s play is brilliantly funny, but it needs to be brought off the page by a lively cast to achieve its true comic potential. This was a dull and often clumsy production that created some comic moments but was certainly not a comedy; by the end of the performance, it felt more like a tragedy with the play itself as the fallen hero. Here’s hoping the Oxford drama scene will yield better results this term.
PHOTO/ Carolina Grierson