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.