Where the RSC went wrong

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On Tuesday this week, Lord Annan, the former Provost of King's College, Cambridge, Vice-Chancellor of the University of London, and director of the Royal Opera House, gave a lunchtime talk at the Royal Geographical Society. Speaking, he said, simply as a member of the audience, he went on to lament the current state of Shakespeare productions ("terrible") and the two diseases that afflict them: "relevance" and "clever ideas". He urged directors to respect the wealth and complexity of the verse. He quoted - tellingly - Primo Levi's complaint about "another evening of stale innovation". This week, also, two new Shakespeare productions - an old favourite, Much Ado About Nothing, and the rarely revived Henry VIII - opened at Stratford. Well, is Lord Annan an old fuddy-duddy, or what?

Michael Boyd's production of Much Ado greets us with an ominously artful - if attractive - set by Tom Piper. It consists of a picture frame (as the proscenium arch), a large room, with plunging perspective, white ceiling, wooden floor, and fair-sized indoor tree. A cellist plays on one side, a painter works on a portrait on the other. We are looking, of course, not at Messina, but at a theme park. Pictures within frames. Appearance and reality. Shifting perspectives. And so on.

Beatrice (Siobhan Redmond) rushes into this intellectualised environment in a luxuriant Elizabethan dress, crosses back and forth, before impulsively snatching the bow out of the cellist's hand and breaking it in half. Don't ask why. No word has been spoken, but we have clocked up Boyd's first rehearsal-room gag. There are many more to come. In the arbour scene, when Benedick is tricked into believing Beatrice is in love with him, this Benedick (Alex Jennings) hides under a table which he then manouevres round the stage. Every time Jennings hears surprising news, the table wobbles. When Jennings emerges from under the table and walks away, the table moves off on its own. These interventions - clumsy, illogical, mildly funny - do nothing to make this play accessible.

Although more than 100 lines have been cut, this Much Ado still runs three hours and 15 minutes. The additions stack up: there are the silent vignettes Boyd places at the top of scenes, and the long pauses that occur with increasing frequency in the fifth Act, during which we watch the dramatic tension evaporate from the stage. Visual business keeps detaining us: as if the text had become a caption in search of an illustration.

At an acute psychological moment, such as when Benedick, insisting on his love, urges Beatrice, "Come, bid me do anything for thee", an elaborate lighting cue draws away our attention. Some idea of the involvement the audience has at this point can be gauged by the reaction to Beatrice's chilling reply: "Kill Claudio." It gets a laugh.

There's a lovely moment in Act 5 when the redundant hand of the director stands absurdly exposed next to the verse. Don Pedro notes that the dawn "dapples the drowsy east with spots of grey". A lighting cue tries to match this and just can't.

It won't surprise anyone familiar with main-stage productions at Stratford to discover that the climax of Much Ado is not the union of Beatrice and Benedick, nor the marriage of Hero and Claudio. Nor is it the final dance sequence - comically under-rehearsed as this one is. The big moment gets handed over to the designer, as the ceiling rises to reveal a rich blue sky. This post-modern production, nicely in tune with the current orthodoxy, beckons us out into a colourful void.

Despite all this, the sparring lovers Redmond and Jennings make an incisive and likeable pair. Jennings is buoyant, upright, wittily indignant, and handles the histrionic side of Benedick well - the mock horror and hyperboles. Once he entertains the idea of love, however, he pushes his loveability. Other members of the cast give effective support: Christopher Luscombe turns in another skilled comedic performance, this time as the neat, pernickety constable, Dogberry (though if performers had to pay royalties, Luscombe would be sending a weekly cheque to Stephen Fry and Julian Clary).

Next door, at the Swan, Gregory Doran directs a rewarding revival of Henry VIII, generally agreed to be Shakespeare's last play, which he co- wrote with Fletcher. The prologue warns us not to expect laughs: what follows is "full of state and woe". This lavishly costumed pageant chronicles the key entrances and exits in public life from 1520 to 1540. On the departures list, we have the sacking of the Duke of Buckingham (a quavery Paul Greenwood). We have the trial and divorce of Katherine of Aragon, a plaintive, pale Jane Lapotaire, with a strained and strange foreign accent ("mallerny law car'inal" for "My learned Lord cardinal"). We have, too, the sacking of Wolsey, a puggish, scheming Ian Hogg. On the arrivals list we see the darkly beautiful Anne Bullen (Claire Marchionne), and hear about the birth and see the baptism of the future Queen Elizabeth. Paul Jesson's Henry has the figure of retired prop forward, and a boyish growling innocence. He doesn't chill us, though, with any lethally whimsical sense of power. For all its braided Tudor appeal, Doran's Henry VIII misses the ruthless magnetism of court politics.

In her trial scene, Lapotaire creates moments of affecting poise and stillness, while Guy Henry excels as the Lord Chamberlain - young, sober, ironic - constantly suggesting a mind filled with affairs of state. Elsewhere the cast mistake gesticulative activity for energy. Many of the gestures have a theatrical aura. Tudor manners look easy to acquire. Stop someone exiting the room by raising your hand. Look thoughtful by tapping your forehead with your index finger. Express a "street" attitude, by sniffing vigorously and placing hands on hips. If confiding in anyone, first glance over your shoulder. When hearing startling news, shift from one foot to another, then shoot a glance at a colleague.

The RSC do some things extremely well: Chekhov, for instance. Adrian Noble's production of The Cherry Orchard, in Peter Gill's translation, which Irving Wardle welcomed so warmly in these pages when it opened in Stratford, transfers to the West End, with the central trio - David Troughton, Penelope Wilton, Alec McCowen - still triumphantly in place. McCowen, a dapper Edwardian Gaev, sustains a mesmeric, understated intimacy with his sister, Madame Ranyevskaya, played with consummate complexity by Penelope Wilton. She switches on the charm with the practised skill of a chat-show hostess. In between, you catch private glances of hollowness and pain. Strongly recommended.

Theatre details: Going Out, page 14.