Home From The War: The Wyndham Theatre’s 2011 Much Ado About Nothing

 

Picture a card table, black wood, green felt. Cards are dealt onto the table, old, familiar cards in a routine that’s as familiar but not unwelcome. This is an old trick, but like all great tricks it’s also a great story and seeing that story unfold is always a pleasure. The cards turn, flip, fold and dance, changing position and suit, color and value in a routine which is so well known, well trodden, you’re anticipating each manouvere as it comes. There’s no surprise here but there is joy in seeing a great story well told.

 

Then there’s a rabbit in the centre of the table. The trick has changed, the rules have changed, the story is new again and yet, somehow, still familiar. This sensation, the old becoming new, is what lies at the heart of the Wyndham theatre production of Much Ado About Nothing.

 

There are three crucial decisions in the make up of the production that make it work. The first is the setting; Gibraltar in the 1980s. Straight away, this places the courtly excesses of the original play in a setting that’s both contemporary and absolutely in keeping with the play’s original structure and intent. The Don and his men become the command staff of a Royal Navy vessel on its’ way home from the war whilst Leonato becomes the island’s governor, a comfortingly authoritarian figure who’s life is defined by his expensive suit and the power-dressing ’80s monstrosities that inhabit his wife and daughter’s wardrobes. Even the watch, normally the slowest part of the play, find new life as a group of ex-pats led by a magnificently overblown, Rambo-obsessed Dogberry played by This is a decade filled with excess and a specific time within it where that excess was at its height. It’s John Ramm.

 

As a result of these choices, it’s very difficult not to look at the nobles as returning home from the Falklands war and that places the play securely in the ‘safe’ period of Thatcherite Britain, before the poll tax and John Major, before the leadership campaigns and being pried from Number 10. This is the time before the time, a suspended bubble of atmosphere that floats on equal currents of nostalgia and rage, neither quite consuming it, both threatening to do so at any moment. Josie Rourke’s production avoids both by doing simple thing; comitting,utterly, to its time period. As well as the setting, the production is riddled with songs that, at first listen, are classic pieces of ’80s power pop. Duran Duran, Wham!, Alice Cooper and more seem to flit across the stage and it’s only when you listen closer that you realise what’s actually being sung, are Shakespeare’s words. Old verse is married to retro music to create something which is both instantly recognisable and very different, giving one scene in particular remarkable emotional impact. The apparent ‘seduction’ of Hero is played out on a rotating circular stage, one half of which is the Hen and the other the Stag party. As the pseudo-goth music swells and we see Claudio’s reaction to what appears to be his fiance rutting against a nightclub, the scene builds to a musical and dramatic crescendo that’s surprisingly intense. This is the 1980s, redolent not only with excess and hedonism, but with casual sex, violence, brutality and the class divide and this one scene shows us it all, red in tooth and claw and so drunk it can barely stand. It also marks the performance out as both visually and verbally witty, the music and rotating set giving Rourke the opportunity to ‘wipe’ between scenes like a film. The play even ends on a dance number, Shakespeare’s traditional maths (Everyone still alives gets married) mixed with 1980s movie logic (Everyone still alive gets everything they wanted and it’s all fine again) to create something which is archaic but brand new. This is Shakespeare with shoulder pads and a bleach job, something new and different and strikingly familiar.

 

That familiarity is further enhanced by the second crucial decision; the casting of David Tennant and Catherine Tate as Benedick and Beatrice. Tennant and Tate are that unique type of double act that are funny simply by standing next to one another and that’s proved here with their very first scene. Tennant, crashing into shot in a golf cart, throwing duty free lager left, right and centre, is the maniacal whirling dervish to Tate’s precise, arch, measured presence. The relish with which they spar is crucial to the play, you have to believe these two enjoy disliking each other, and that’s clear from the moment they share the stage. They play Benedick and Beatrice as two fiercely smart, driven people who know exact;y what they want and are utterly terrified of getting it and the end result is remarkably sweet. The vast, face-breaking grin that Benedick leaves the stage with when he’s convinced Beatrice loves him is topped only by Beatrice’s flappy handed delight when she hears the same.

That similiarity between them is neatly exploited in the play with Benedick and Beatrice’s best scenes both coming from the scene where the plot to ensare them unfolds. Tennant lopes around the pillars at the centre of the stage as they rotate, pursued by Leonato’s son holding his book until the book is hurled off stage and the boy stomps off in disgust. It’s a beautifully paced scene, as funny for what we don’t see as what we do as the Duke, Leonato and Claudio struggle to keep straight faces, Benedick struggles to be heard and the child struggles to just give the long legged fool his damn book. The entire thing has an air of Morecambe and Wise to it, right down to Benedick’s monologue, delivered with beautifully paced glee by Tennant. That sense of absurdity is continued by Beatrice’s scene which opens with her hiding under a painter’s tarpaulin and culminates in her being suspended over the action by a painter’s harness. It’s broad, absurd and uniquely of it’s time, once again. Even the jokes here are, if not recycled, then cleverly repurposed and re designed to create a very complete, very deliberate approach to the material. The performance we saw even had a welcome dash of real humour, as Tate struggled to get out of the harness, muttered ‘Oh come on’ to herself as she broke free and was greeted with rapturous applause. She left the stage grinning, clearly relieved and with an extra dash of humanity to add to Beatrice’s considerable collection of it.

 

The third crucial decision that the play hangs on is Rourke’s refusal to focus exclusively on the big moments. Much Ado About Nothing is a play full of broad strokes and Rourke makes sure each has it’s moment, but she’s as interested in the smaller lines. Adam James, a go to actor for ‘oily yuppie villain’ for any Kudos TV production, turn in superb work as Don Pedro and his proposal to Beatrice is wonderful, a brash military man showing a moment of vulnerability and being brutally punished for it. Tate gets a big laugh on her reaction, then another, then smaller and smaller echoes as Beatrice’s horror at what she’s done to this genuinely good man is mirrored by the audience’s sympathy for both of them. This may be a scene written in 1598 but the social awkwardness, the moment of vulnerability, the unintentional cruelty is universal.

Later, the scene where Beatrice and Benedick confess their love for one another is funny, sweet, romantic and audibly curdles the second Beatrice says ‘Kill Claudio’. Tate gathers the air in the room to her at that point, becoming a cold, hard point that you can’t take your eyes off. It’s the hinge the play shifts around and the entire production is pushed by those two words, Catherine Tate’s delivery and the way that Tennant responds. His chilling, still, rage-filled challenge to Claudio is another highlight and the moment he dismisses himself from the Duke’s service leaves you in no doubt that this is a man going off to fight, and kill, a good friend of his. The fact that the next time we see them Benedick is unintentionally composing ‘Green Sleeves’ on a bontempi keyboard does nothing to distract from this. Benedick is a clown, certainly, but he’s a clown with a sword and that sword is entirely at Beatrice’s disposal.

This attention to detail is found again and again throughout the play, with even minor characters getting real moments to shine. John Ramm’s magnificent Dogberry has already been mentioned but Jonathan Coy as Leonato and Tom Bateman as Claudio are also given genuinely great moments. The scene where Leonato all but threatens to go to war with the Don and Claudio feels as genuine as Benedick’s vow to kill his friend whilst Bateman’s Claudio is exactly the right combination of physical, confident, immature, likable and hateful. This is Bateman’s first time out of the gate, having just graduated from LAMDA and he nails Claudio’s odd combination of passivity and violence. There’s a palpable sense of this being a good man, but one in need of tempering, and that lends weight and spark to his confrontations with both Benedick and Hero.

 

Much Ado About Nothing is almost the archetypal romantic comedy but here, it becomes something different and mercurial. Shakespeare’s play is still there, and presented with rare wit and verve, but there’s also a very odd, very involving hymn to the genre it all but spawned and a love letter to a decade that may not deserve it but here, feels like it should. The trick has changed, the trick is still the same and the characters dance on, not caring what time or era it is. After all, the Don’s men are home from the wars.

 

From Gallifrey to Elsinore

The 12th DoctorFor a ‘gap’ year, there’s a lot of Doctor Who news around at the moment. First off, the long awaited movie version has been officially announced by the BBC. On top of that, David Tennant, Russell T Davies and Euros Lyn are all at the San Diego Comic Convention this month, leading a lot of people to believe an announcement is forthcoming.
If so, the project couldn’t have stronger figureheads The kudos of having a project fronted by one of the most popular Doctors, produced by the man who resurrected the series and headed by one of its most successful directors can’t be over estimated. Nor, perhaps, can the fact that Lyn will be appearing on the back of his work on the Torchwood: Children of Earth mini-series.

Next up, Tennant will be returning to Elsinore as the RSC‘s superb Hamlet will be filmed for both DVD release and broadcast. It’s a staggeringly good production with the first definitive Hamlet of the 21st century at its head and I can’t wait to see how it holds up to being recorded.

The Dalek Incident Finally, Cubicle 7 have announced the Doctor Who roleplaying game will be published in October. It’s a boxed set, and I can particularly recommend the adventures booklet…

The Doctor Returns to Elsinore

Over the last year I’ve been to the theatre three times, all different and all fantastic shows. The Mckellen/Stewart Waiting for Godot, a production of Pirates of Penzance that was gloriously, riotously silly and the David Tennant-fronted Hamlet. I reviewed it here, and I wasn’t alone in hailing Tennant as one of the greatest Hamlets of all time.

What I didn’t know until recently was that Tennant didn’t reach the amount of performances needed to be considered for an Olivier award. Whilst he did over seventy shows in Stratford upon Avon, a back injury meant he could only perform eleven times in London.

Now, multiple sources are reporting that the RSC are planning to re-unite the cast to film the production. Oliver Ford Davies, who played Polonius, revealed that the play would be filmed in early June and he was hopeful the entire cast would return. The story, reported in the Telegraph, was confirmed by the RSC although the exact form the film will take remains unclear. Ford Davies said “It won’t be a full feature film as there isn’t time but it will certainly be more than just the filming of the stage.”

Even if it is, this is fantastic news. Hamlet at it’s best is a play like no other and this production really is Hamlet at it’s best.  

Hamlet-How To Draw Your Own Map

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I watched an actor draw his own map on Saturday.

The RSC’s production of Hamlet, held at the Courtyard Theatre whilst their complex is, in essence, rebuilt, has attracted a lot of press due to the casting of both Patrick Stewart as Claudius and David Tennant as Hamlet.  Whilst not all of that press has been positive, most notably the RSC’s refusal to allow the actor to sign Doctor Who memorabilia, the production has been getting very positive word.

The reason for that is simple, because that’s exactly what this production is; simple.  The Courtyard is a wonderful theatre, designed with absolutely no artifice so every wiring track and support strut, every light and even props are on display, the carpet the Players enact their scene on being stored, unobtrusively, by one of the exits.  It’s an appropriate location too, as this Hamlet is a bare-bones production, the cast finding their way back to the elements of the play and creating something which is both devastatingly open and honest and at the same time elegantly crafted.

The stage is a black, reflective square backed by mirrored doors, creating a half square, a right angle that draws the audience in straight away, subconsciously completing it.  This also allows for some minimalist but remarkably atmospheric lighting, most notably in the first scene where the primary light is the watchmen’s torches, reflected from the floor and visibly arcing upwards.  This first scene not only sets out the stall for the story but also for this production.  The watchmen have never felt so real, so human and their blank terror as the ghost splits around them is utterly real.  The production serves its everymen very well too with performances from Polonius’ long-suffering servant Reynaldo, played by Ewen Cummins, and the courtier Osric, played by Ryan Gage, both registering later.  This is Elsinore as a vast machine of state, one where the first signs of a problem, the first tremors are felt by and affect the smallest cogs first.

This understated approach continues as the Royal Family make their appearance, smiling and waving at a photo call as they walk through onto the stage.  Tennant’s Hamlet arrives with no fanfare, a tall, uncomfortable figure standing alone in the corner of the stage and unnoticed for much of this first scene.  Only a look from Claudius and a pointed ‘Now, Laertes.’  Shows the audience he’s there and also shows them how uncomfortable the two men already are with one another.

It would have been easy for Tennant to play Hamlet as the Doctor, the two characters have the same mercurial intellect, the same flamboyance, the same wilful lack of social skills.  It would have been easy for Tennant to spend the entire play sprinting around with the maniacal energy he brings to that other role and to be fair, there’s more than a hint of the Doctor’s jet black sense of theatre to some of Hamlet’s later adventures, especially the moment where he sets off for England, tied to an office chair.  It would have been easy for Tennant to coast through this role, to hit the same marks thousands before him have, to do nothing new.

Nothing Tennant does here is easy.  His first soliloquy is delivered in wracking sobs, Hamlet collapsed into a foetal ball of grief and pain that you feel uncomfortable watching.  There’s no artifice here, no sense of buttons being pushed, this is a man who lives completely in the moment and the moment is full of nothing but agony and loss.  It’s impossible not to feel sorry for him, impossible too not to remember that Tennant lost his mother recently and the end result is a Hamlet who is, in essence, naked, broken and still has a long, long way to go.

Tennant’s performance, if anything, improves over the course of the play and he starts to take an almost wilful delight in not playing to the usual interpretations of scenes.  His first meeting with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern sees him measure and defeat them in seconds and he toys with his two friends from there on, alternately revelling in their company and despising it.  Likewise, the moment where he has the opportunity to kill Claudius and doesn’t is fascinating, firstly for the fact the scene is cut in half across the interval and secondly because of the sheer emotion behind every one of Tennant’s lines.

That emotion is at the heart of this Hamlet’s madness, and it’s a devastatingly smart choice by Tenant and director Gregory Doran.  Hamlet clings to his anger and grief, uses them as a weapon to hack his way through life and only when Polonius is killed does he stop and realise what’s happened.  Rash action has just cost an old man his life and Hamlet any chance of redemption and the scenes that follow vary from one of the most electrifying confrontations between Hamlet and Claudius in recent years to a moment where, meeting Fortinbras’ sergeant, he sees the future of Denmark and seemingly accepts that he’ll be no part of it.

This is a Hamlet with fierce intelligence who is far too willing to use it, but, again, the production confounds expectation.  Instead of the out of control intellectual of old, the inclusion of the scene with Fortinbras’ sergeant brings into focus this version’s willingness to sacrifice himself.  Hamlet knows he’s not part of the greater good, of the solution and accepts that.  His peace comes here, not so much through vengeance as through the realisation that, at last, he can rest.  This is, in short, a Hamlet constructed of complexity and contradiction, a man who defines himself by his death as much as his life.  Visceral, emotional and painfully open this is also, I suspect, the definitive Hamlet of the next decade.

Tennant is far from alone on stage, Patrick Stewart’s dual roles proving as electric as Tennant’s.  Casting Stewart as both the Ghost and Claudius is inspired, as is the decision to dress Claudius in slightly period formal suits whilst the Ghost is confined to armour and military dress.  One man is vital, physical and dead.  The other is intellectual, charming, plausible and killed him.  Stewart’s Claudius is a man absolutely at home in affairs of state, as bullish intellectually as his brother was physically and all the more threatening for that.  His weariness with the verbose Polonius and growing contempt and fear for Hamlet are fascinating to see and his reaction to the Players, fascinatingly, leaves him in absolute control.  He walks up to Hamlet, stares at him, shakes his head very deliberately and almost murmurs ‘Away.’  It’s the moment where the two men finally see face to face, finally realise they will destroy one another and Claudius, not blinded by the savage vindication Hamlet feels, sees that straight away.

It’s the quiet moments where Stewart shines however.  Left alone after the play he’s wracked with coughs, his guilt spewing from him as bile whilst alone with Gertrude he’s the picture of husbandly concern.  Just as Hamlet feels he has no place in Elsinore, Claudius feels he must earn his place through hard work and altruistic gesture, through making Denmark great again.  His strength, his control, is all façade and when that’s revealed, when Hamlet is standing over him, knife in hand, the play shifts suddenly.  It’s no longer a war for Denmark or a quest for vengeance but rather a battle between two terrified, intelligent men with no semblance of control over their lives.  Each defines the other, each controls the other and in the end, each dooms both.  Once again, it’s a remarkable, unique take on an old role and once again it showcases an actor at the absolute top of his game.  A friend of mine pointed out that Stewart even alters his voice, his Claudius always near the top of his register, always dry-throated as he struggles to hold the bile back and it only heightens the desperation, the sense of danger mentioned above.

Elsinore’s other tragic family are also well served here with Oliver Ford Davies’ Polonius embodying the contradictions of the role with humour that never once belittles the mundane, banal evil Polonius does.  One part doting father to one part obsessive spymaster he’s blinded in the end by his connection to the great machine that is Elsinore.  Hamlet, Claudius, even Gertrude can see the changes coming but Polonius can never see past the walls of the castle and that, in the end, dooms him and his children.

Edward Bennett and Mariah Gale complete the triangle of grieving children in the play, Bennett’s Laertes a ’60s student radical with an axe to grind.  He’s a perfect upper-class big brother and when he begins to fall apart, the comparisons between him and Hamlet are inevitable and well drawn.  Both are intelligent men driven mad through grief, both are intent on vengeance and both are parts of the machine, neither realising until it’s too late.

Mariah Gale’s Ophelia takes a leaf from Tennant’s book, her grief as real and raw and desperate as Hamlet’s own.  However, her death serves not only to complete the pattern of grieving children but also show how lucky Hamlet is.  He has vengeance to power him, to distract him whilst all Ophelia has is the knowledge that the man she loved killed the man who loved her, her father.  Her final scene, grubby, bleeding and clutching a pile of pond weed is like Tennant’s opening speech, remarkable and, like that earlier scene, extremely uncomfortable to watch.

Penny Downie’s Gertrude and Peter De Jersey’s Horatio are the two quiet stars of the play but no less impressive for that.  Downie has few lines but never stops acting and her poise and increasingly brittle, cracked façade break the audience’s heart twice.  The first time is after Hamlet leaves her, throwing a cheery ‘Goodnight Mother!’ behind him as, clearly, he always has.  The abject joy on her face as she realises that for a few seconds, her son has returned to her, shatters into wracking sobs as the reality of her situation descends on her, closely followed by Claudius’ unwelcome, massaging hands.

The second is at the climax of the duel, a moment traditionally played as Gertrude toasting her newly recovered son.  Here, she clearly realises what Claudius has done, clearly realises what’s coming and wants no part of it.  She kills herself and in doing so sets in motion the final chain of events, seizing control of her life as her son did before her.

Finally, De Jersey has the most thankless task of all.  The stoic Horatio does nothing but react throughout the play but, once again, is well served here.  De Jersey’s default costume, a tweed jacket with suede elbow pads speaks to his academic past and this Horatio is fiercely intelligent, a muscular, rebellious presence who supports his friend as much through shared jokes at Elsinore’s expense as assisting his investigation.  He’s a dependable, solid presence in the play and provides a sounding board for Tennant’s Hamlet, throwing him into starker relief as well as putting a human face on the closing tragedy of the play.

It’s there, in the final seconds though, that Doran pulls the rug from under the audience’s feet.  As Hamlet dies, the doors open and Fortinbras strides in, accompanied by the sergeant Hamlet spoke to earlier.  There’s no closing speech, no expression of regret, just a man in uniform who, after a moment, Osric bows to.  The great machine of Elsinore rumbles on, but a new controller is at the helm and whether or not his intentions are pure is left up to us.

This is Hamlet stripped bare, the cogs and gears exposed and it’s a revelation.  Intelligence, emotion and sheer physical presence combine to create a performance which is both pragmatic and grounded and shot through with equal veins of black humour and tragedy.  This is Shakespeare taken down to the essentials and ready to be rediscovered for the 21st Century, a seething powerhouse of a cast and a performance.  This is Tennant drawing the map of his future career and, in doing so, showing the way to a definitive new perspective on Hamlet.  This is, in short, extraordinary.