You can never have too much Much Ado About Nothing.
So I thought as I merrily headed off to compare two crowd-pulling new productions. This is Shakespeare's sure-fire comedy in which – having mocked the notion of falling in love – sparring wits Beatrice and Benedick find they're not so averse to it, or each other, after all.
Roll on this West End staging then, starring Catherine Tate as Beatrice and David Tennant as Benedick – a scintillating Hamlet last time he trod the boards. Josie Rourke (who'll be running the Donmar from 2012) directs. But oh dear, what's gone wrong? Well, firstly, Rourke's 1980s setting is obtrusively gimmicky, tending towards the cheesy while aiming to be cute. She has a little boy trotting in and out, twiddling a Rubik's cube. Meanwhile Tennant and his Royal Navy pals have fetched up at the swanky Gibraltar villa owned by Beatrice's uncle, Leonato, in white uniforms, Officer and a Gentleman-style, even though they're returning from the Falklands war.
Tennant's Benedick is a show-off in shades, whizzing in on a golf cart, horn honking to get a laugh. Waiting for the fancy-dress ball, Tate's Beatrice lounges around in a Michael Jackson outfit, coming over as more snide than witty. Actually, almost everyone is charmless here, an oily beefcake of a Claudio and a vacant, shag-permed Hero (Leonato's daughter) being this play's other sweethearts.
Fortunately, Tennant grows more winning in the eavesdropping scene where – overhearing his mates saying that Beatrice secretly adores him – he darts out, bug-eyed, from behind pillars and ends up covered in wet paint because the villa is being redecorated. Still, you never sense any chemistry between Tennant and Tate. That's partly because when he does get serious, she keeps skittering into comic evasions, squawking with laughter. Maybe both need time to settle into their roles and become less strained, but right now it's Adam James, as Benedick's commander, the Prince of Aragon, whose effortless naturalism and quieter humour steals the show. His soft spot for Beatrice could, indeed, be explored further.
Rourke's most striking directorial intervention is an unscripted scene where she has Tom Bateman's Claudio – after a booze-sodden stag do – jealously storm into Hero's clubbing hen night, where he thinks he spots her in flagrante with a bit of rough.
Unfortunately, to make that concept fit, Rourke lops subsequent lines rather clumsily. As for endowing Hero with a mother, this is folly: an extra female character who, firstly, robs Beatrice of her vital role as the slandered Hero's only comforter and who, secondly, just looks feeble, having no lines to say in her daughter's defence.
Over at the Globe – with Eve Best and Charles Edwards in the leading roles – Jeremy Herrin's take on the same play also has its weakness, markedly floundering in the second half. That's when the asinine constable Dogberry shows up, played by Paul Hunter who peppers his unfunny malapropisms with desperate cries of "Wey-hey!". (John Ramm copes better in Rourke's production, doing a sort of butch/camp Dad's Army turn.) The latter half of the Globe production could darken more sharply too, when Hero's wedding day turns into a near-tragedy. Overall, Herrin's directing is hit and miss, as if he paid closer attention to some scenes than others. Nonetheless, the Globe's is the more enchanting production, with gorgeous period costumes in warm apricot- and plum-coloured silk, and the orange trees in Leonato's garden fashioned from the stage supports.
Edwards is a debonair Benedick, with delicious comic timing that outshines Tennant's. And Best, tomboyishly scruffy, develops a charmingly playful relationship with the audience, which always works a treat in the relaxed intimacy of the Globe's "wooden O". When her Beatrice envisages happily evading marriage and joining the bachelors in heaven, she waves at the guys sitting up in the gods. Then, when she falls in love, she's on her knees in comically girly mode, confessing to and hugging a groundling.
Lastly, to Trevor Nunn's West End-bound revival of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, the mid-Sixties hit that made the young Tom Stoppard famous. Unfortunately, the latter's cheeky reimagining of Hamlet, from the perspective of the two nonentities from Wittenberg – making them a flailing comic duo with philosophical anxieties about free will – doesn't seem as clever or as funny as it once did. It now comes across more like a combo of Wildean one-liners and Waiting for Godot, and Samuel Barnett's camp Rosencrantz is slightly tiresome.
Still, the play is mounted with a beautiful austerity on a shadowy stage, its grooved planks creating a fast-receding perspective to a vanishing point. And as Guildenstern, what Jamie Parker (Barnett's co-star in The History Boys) brings out are Stoppard's haunting poetic rhythms and his mournful rumination on mortality.
'Much Ado about Nothing' (Wyndham's 0844 482 5120) to 3 Sep; 'Much Ado about Nothing' (Globe 020-7401 9919) to 1 Oct; 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead' (01243 781312) to 11 Jun, then Theatre Royal Haymarket (0845 481 1870), 16 Jun to 20 Aug
Kate Bassett sees if Dominic West makes the grade as the acerbic lecturer in Simon Gray's comedy Butley
Jess is caught, amusingly and edgily, between her intruding dad and her drunken flatmates in The Acid Test, by award-winning young playwright Anya Reiss, at the Royal Court Upstairs, London (to 11 Jun). Cheek by Jowl's outstanding Three Sisters, in Russian with surtitles, is at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham (from Wed to Sun).
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