Like London buses, you wait for a play to come along and find that two productions open almost at the same time. Such is the case here with this version at the Globe and another version of 'Much Ado About Nothing' due to open at Wyndham's next week. The Globe gets the edge by opening first, and the partnership of Eve Best as Beatrice and Charles Edwards as Benedick is certainly a winning combination.
Prefaced by a torrential storm earlier in the afternoon, it looked like this second Globe opening in 'The Word is God' season would leave both actors and the yard audience drenched. But the gods were kind, the skies cleared, and the show, as always at this address, went on.
First published in 1600, evidence about the first performance of 'Much Ado About Nothing' is rather sparse. It might have been performed before Shakespeare's company took up residence at the Globe. The play is set in Messina in Sicily – a quick look at a map will show the location at the 'toe' of Italy's boot, if that makes sense. No wonder, then, that the design here is all lush greenery above the stage, with oranges growing in abundance in the hot Sicilian sun.
Claudio wants to marry Hero, and Don Pedro offers to woo her for him at a masked ball. Mission accomplished, Hero and Claudio are all set to be married, but Don Pedro's villainous half-brother, Don John, invents a scheme to cast doubt on Hero's chastity which results in the marriage being called off when Claudio challenges Hero at the ceremony. Friar Francis comes to the rescue, hatching a counter-plot to stage Hero's death to buy time to verify her virtue and hopefully revive Claudio's love.
The play is a bit odd, because the central characters – Claudio and Hero – get rather overshadowed by the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick who initially act as though they despise each other, but who eventually set aside their quibbling and also become 'an item'. The big question is whether they love each other from the start or not. In this case, I think it's probably true for Beatrice, but not for Benedick. It's a tricky one, though. However, there's no questioning the performances of either Eve Best (Beatrice) or Charles Edwards as Benedick. Ms Best impresses in every respect from the moment she appears. She has a wonderfully rich, crystal-clear speaking voice, sparkles in the verbal duals with Benedick and exudes confidence and spirit. And Charles Edwards is hugely convincing, as well as witty and intelligent, as Benedick. With the stature and bearing of a soldier, he epitomises loyalty and honesty coupled with the determination to remain a bachelor. Both actors had the audience eating out of their hands, not only with their very fine individual performances, but with their excellent team work.
Less satisfying is the the local watch which usually provides plenty of humour. Led by the pea-brained Constable Dogberry who wouldn't recognise a law if it bit him in the rear end, the watch is a motley crew of neighbours who would prefer to be snug in their beds rather than wandering the streets at night hunting-down miscreants. Paul Hunter's Dogberry has a repetitive twitch – or tic if you prefer – which left the audience unmoved, and even a little mystified. The real humour – if audience reaction is anything to go by – comes from the sparring between Beatrice and Benedick, and from their individual speeches. And an enormous wave of sentimentality swept around the auditorium when they were eventually about to kiss. In fact, one audience member felt compelled to cue-in the action shouting “Kiss him”. And a rapturous reception followed when the act was duly completed. Awwwww.
Sentimental romance aside, this is certainly an enjoyable production, marred a little by the lack of humour from the watch, but offset in more than equal measure by the exceptional performances of Ms Best and Mr Edwards. It sets the bar very high for the other version opening next week.
"Eve Best and Charles Edwards are a beautifully balanced Beatrice and Benedick, the reluctant lovers."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"It proves a treat"
Julie Carpenter for The Daily Express
"Splendidly spirited production."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard