Age is the theme and the big talking point at the Old Vic as it plays host to two great theatre pros in Shakespeare’s much-loved comedy. Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones are Benedick and Beatrice: reluctant older lovers, grouchily bickering their way into each other’s hearts.
The play is reimagined in a Britain of old too. It’s 1944, and we get a wartime view of the country that perhaps only ever existed in our imaginations. A land of comedy policemen, dashingly handsome GIs and naughty boy scouts – it conjures up images of a particular kind of British sitcom or BBC radio play, a sort of ‘Archers’ does Shakespeare.
Earl Jones is 82 and Redgrave 76, and director Mark Rylance’s idea of having these particular characters being played by older actors does work. Their feisty, flirty, yet world-weary performances have that special delight of watching two elderly relatives have one sherry too many on Christmas Day.
Vanessa Redgrave is the expected reliable class act, energetic and sprightly.
After a faltering start for James Earl Jones, the star turn eventually started to shine through, with that famous voice and a truly infectious belly laugh. Seeing him scamper around and hide like a cheeky schoolboy is cute.
Away from the laughs, Lloyd Everitt and Beth Cooke offered up strong performances as the tragic young lovers Claudio and Hero and there was a particularly juicy, almost pantomime villain turn from Danny Lee Wynter as the scheming Don John.
It all marches along at a good pace and has its moments of the surreal – James Earl Jones in a skeleton outfit isn’t something you see every day. And the celebration of age and love is uplifting and admirable – a good contrast to the bright young things of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ over at the Noël Coward. But it is, on the whole, a tad flat, and doesn’t quite catch alight. It’s like a cosy Sunday night sitcom: warm, funny, enjoyable to watch, yet you don’t massively care if you forget to tune in.
By Lee Tomlinson
Lee is a television director and lives in Finsbury Park. He was selected to write this review as part of the Time Out Takeover – a special edition of the magazine written entirely by readers.