First Night: Much Ado About Nothing, Olivier, NT, London

Reluctant lovers' slapstick is exquisitely judged are delightfully slapstick

Paul Taylor
Wednesday 19 December 2007 01:00
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Nick Hytner's very funny and psychologically acute revival of Much Ado About Nothing causes quite a splash literally so in the Olivier. There's delightful aquatic slapstick in the scenes where Benedick and Beatrice are, in turn, tricked by their friends into overhearing home truths.

In an attempt to conceal his presence from his chums, Simon Russell Beale's excellent Benedick resorts to the desperate lengths of jumping into the plunge-pool on his host's Sicilian terrace and he vanishes under the water. But the cream of the jest is that when he surfaces, the effect is not just farcical but, against all the odds, ridiculously romantic. This is because in the sudden Damascan-flash recognition that he is loved by, and loves, Beatrice, Benedick completely forgets that he is soaking wet. And then, when he recalls that fact, his attempts at a manly water-logged strut are hilarious. I don't want to give away how Hytner varies the gag with Zoe Wanamaker's Beatrice except to say that it's exquisitely judged and explains why, in later scenes, this Shakespearean heroine is nursing a bad cold on top of all her other woes.

These two actors bring a fantastic, unforced chemistry to the sparring, emotionally defensive relationship between Shakespeare's witty, reluctant lovers. Looking like soul-mates as if by natural selection, both of them are unconventionally attractive, dumpy, intelligent, and verbally gifted oddballs.

Making waspish wisecracks while also making very free with the wine bottle, Wanamaker's Beatrice could conceivably, you feel, decline into a bitchy lush, unless she admits to the deep sensitivity she discloses in those moments when she remembers an earlier encounter with Benedick. She's become the family comedienne to hide the melancholy, which they haven't even noticed.

In this in-period production, Beale's protagonist is a man who has become trapped in a simplified version of himself as the bookish, ageing wag of the regiment. When he confesses his love to Beatrice, he blurts it out with a soft rapidity that mixes utter conviction and complete incredulity that he has managed to say it.

The production is exploratory in all its details. Andrew Woodall even manages to give the usually one-dimensional villain Don John a clinically depressive motivation for his destructive nihilism. Marianne Elliott's recent RSC production, set in 1950s Cuba, was sexier in its exotic and erotic energy. Hytner wisely declines to compete on those terms and offers a plainer, but psychologically more satisfying version a Much Ado which there is a lot to make a fuss about.

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