Where the RSC went wrong

THEATRE

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
Teeth should be brushed twice a day to prevent tooth decay
education
News
Bryan Cranston as Walter White, in the acclaimed series 'Breaking Bad'
news
Sport
footballChelsea 6 Maribor 0: Blues warm up for Premier League showdown with stroll in Champions League - but Mourinho is short of strikers
News
Those who were encouraged to walk in a happy manner remembered less negative words
science
Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
News
Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones
i100
Life and Style
tech

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

News
There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law
news

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Sport
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    IT Project Manager

    Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

    Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

    £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

    Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

    £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

    IT Manager

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

    Day In a Page

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London