Much Ado about Nothing is one of Shakespeare's great comedies. It bubbles with mirth until the false denouncement of Hero causes it to wallow in a bit of melodrama, but soon after matters are resolved; laughter is restored and happiness, in the shape of a double wedding, takes place, followed by music and dancing.
This play is filled with famous quotable lines, such as "a star danced and under that was I born", but it requires the art and artifice of great acting to bring it to life and this it has in spades at the National. There are no weak links in this production, which uses a largely unknown cast led by two fine leads, Zoë Wanamaker and Simon Russell Beale.
Nicholas Hytner, the show's director, has scored with the lightest of touches. The play is set in sunny Sicily, with the main action taking place on a revolve using a simple setting of wooden panels through which light flows and characters can be heard talking, overheard by others listening on the wrong side. The set turns frequently to reveal parts of Leonato's house and garden. The big scenes in the gulling of Beatrice and Benedick, as the pair listen individually to false testimony of the other's love for them, work very well.
The whole play is surrounded by music and dancing, but Hytner never lets the play degenerate into farce. Instead, it is played as high comedy, with first Benedick falling into a swimming pool while trying to listen to Beatrice express her love for him; the same action is mirrored when Beatrice is eavesdropping.
Beforehand, I worried that these two actors would be too old for lovers, but their age works perfectly. It makes the discovery of their affection for each other all the more touching and funny. Both actors give wonderfully rounded performances, which are a pleasure to watch.
Shakespeare always seems to present his working-class characters as good-hearted but unable to expresss themselves, and Dogberry, the tongue-tied constable, is a delicious example. He is well played by Mark Addy. Hero is played by Susannah Fielding, who only graduated this year from the Guildhall, but is already on her third performance for the National. She has a bright future ahead of her. Oliver Ford Davies is at his best as usual in the role of Hero's put-upon father, Leonato.
This Much Ado makes ideal Christmas entertainment for those of us who are rather tired of pantomime dames. Nicholas Hytner's production is light, fluid and very funny. It is like a good soufflé. It rises to the occasion.
To 29 Mar (020-7452 3000)
Arnold Pearce, retired advertising executive, LondonReuse content