Last week, I saw 'Much Ado About Nothing' at the Globe, and now here's another version playing at Wyndham's, right in the heart of the West End. Comparisons are often invidious, but here's a rare chance to compare two productions of the same play, both on at the same time.
This version has the added glamour and audience pulling-power of TV stars in the lead roles. TV comedian and character actress Catherine Tate is Beatrice and a former Dr Who, David Tennant, is Benedick. With a time traveller in the lead, it was pretty obvious that the location for this version was going to move from the late 16th century. So, director Josie Rourke has switched the location from Sicily to Gibralter and the time also speeds ahead to the 1980s. Gibralter? Well, the idea is that the soldiers are now sailors and the fleet is taking a much-needed period of respite, presumably from the Falklands conflict.
David Tennant is simply superb as Benedick. He makes Shakespeare's language seem so natural you might think that it's the kind of stuff spoken on the streets of Glasgow on a daily basis. He's not so much the archetypal soldier though, or even naval officer. He's wiry rather than built like the side of a house. Even so, under the humerous façade, we discover an honest man with a real sense of justice who doesn't hesitate to put his friendship with Claudio on the line when he thinks his friend has wrongly maligned an innocent woman.
Catherine Tate employs her brilliant comic timing to maximum effect, drawing out words as if speaking to an idiot when she's sparring with Benedick. And she shows that she's more than capable of dealing with other emotions too, for example when her cousin's virtue is questioned in the church by Claudio, she breaks down in tears. However, she doesn't seem quite so confident when delivering the non-humorous lines, and struggles to match Mr Tennant's obvious natural gift with making Shakespeare's dialogue sound like the next-door neighbour talking over the fence.
The set is a mass of Venetian shutters, almost from floor to ceiling and surrounding the acting area. Four giant pillars sit in the middle and get rotated on a revolve which allows some fun with the scene where Benedick is hiding from his chums, during which he also gets covered in paint. Catherine Tate gets hauled up to the rafters on a wire when she's trying to eavesdrop on her cousin, and Benedick makes his first entrance on a golf buggy. The costumes are gaudily vibrant, reflecting the mood of the 80s, and the leads swap gender for a while during the masque with David Tennant in drag and Ms Tate donning a rather sinister outfit of suit, black hat and dark glasses.
There's first-class support here from Adam James as the benevolent Don Pedro, and Jonathan Coy as Leonato switches effortlessly from genial host, to embittered parent when his daughter's virtue is wrongly brought into question. And Tom Bateman is a devilishly handsome Claudio who will, no doubt, have admirers swooning in the aisles.
So, what about the comparison with the Globe version? Well, they are very, very different. In their own ways, both are excellent productions with the two pairs of leading actors turning-in admirable performances. I think this version is the funnier of the two with both Catherine Tate and David Tennant in terrific comic form. And the support here just has the edge with near-perfect casting. The night watch are better here, with John Ramm leading the neighbours as a Rambo-like Constable Dogberry who also highlights the malapropisms to greater effect. Even so, it's still not as funny as some versions I've seen, which proves just how difficult it is to get this part of the play completely right. Other than that, there's nothing much to quibble about with this version of 'Much Ado' as Josie Rourke's directorial vision is crystal-clear and cohesive with nothing left to chance. The result is deliciously entertaining.
"Witty and inventive production...Rourke’s production has a freshness and wit about it that is often irresistible...This, in short, is populist Shakespeare with both intelligence and heart."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"The pairing of David Tennant as Benedick with Catherine Tate as Beatrice is a marriage that, if not made in heaven, is certainly cemented by television and pays off superbly. They are helped by Josie Rourke's decision to set the action in early 1980s Gibraltar: a world of crisp navy uniforms, clear class distinctions and high-spirited post-Falklands partying...Tennant is especially good at showing Benedick's transition from the self-conscious madcap of the officers' mess into a man capable of love...Tate gives an excellent account of Beatrice as the kind of larky, high-spirited woman who uses her wisecracking gifts as a defence against emotional engagement"
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"A rare mis-step for the admirable Josie Rourke, this production feels effortful and inauthentic...the production is either thin or crazy. It's important that Beatrice and Hero live in a household with no older female authority figure. Rourke invents a mother for Hero and equips the character with the scant lines assigned to the uncle in the play. All this cipher can do is look pained and ineffective. It's typical of a production that is over-interpreted and insufficiently thought-through."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"There is much to love here and nothing to fault.
Don Mackay for The Daily Mirror
"Her [Josie Rourke] production of this play about rumour, honour and deception ripples with originality."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
" Tennant is certainly on great sparring form as Benedick. He is more derisive than some but balances this by playing the clown with manic energy, displaying great comic timing and emphasis, while moving naturally from glib to grave. Tate, in her Shakespeare debut, excels most when she’s being scornful...Overall this wonderfully accessible production is a bit like the decade it’s set in: Brash and over the top but with the power to totally draw you in. A winner."
Julie Carpenter for The Daily Express