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.
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UUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUGH I felt like I was watching a rehearsal the whole time. Not even Vanessa could make it ok. my mates fell asleep in order to make it through.
I am astonished at the clutch of devastating reviews for this ground-breaking production. Admittedly, I didn't go on Press Night, but actually had booked to go last night ( September 23rd). What I saw was a witty, brilliantly acted and very cleverly 'this isn't staged at all' production which had me and a very full House laughing and cheering. the costumes and the music are wonderful, the characters from a very true place in 1944. And yes, everybody, Black American soldiers were indeed fighting for our country and based on English aerodromes...look up your history a little better before dismissing the very careful research that has clearly been done by Mark Rylance and the production team. It's true, the set is divisive, I can understand why some people find it unwelcoming, but it provides a transformative playing space,like its ancestor the Globe stage, and this is a breakthrough response to how to play Shakespeare indoors without masses of scene and lighting changes. ( both of which look glaringly anachronistic after watching Shakespeare at The Globe). This production is truly brilliant, and like all geniuses throughout history, Mr Rylance has been much maligned. he is doing something different, ladies and gentlemen...er..like he did at the Globe you now know and love. And by the way, I hope I am able to be as spry as Vanessa Redgrave when I am 77. Hurrah for her; she is a National Living Treasure, another genius. Ignore those has-been critics. Go judge for yourselves!
Naturally ‘Much Ado’ is a much-loved play and its stars Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones are well-renowned, this production, directed by the fabulous Mark Rylance, was still in its previews, and so I don’t think it had quite reached the well-oiled, fluid pace it maybe has now If I’m honest, although Redgrave acted Beatrice reasonably comfortably, Jones sadly forgot his lines at one point, and even when he was acting well, his age showed; every time he came on stage a chair had to be found for him to sit on. However, I think my main problem with this production was summed up in an interview with the two leads themselves; James Earl Jones said: “For Benedick, my only feeling was that here’s a guy who’s in a world where people spin language about. I thought: I bet he is not quite up to it.” I’m afraid that personally I simply don’t agree with this. For me, Benedick and Beatrice should be the quickest, wittiest characters on the stage, outstripping all their friends and relations – that’s why they’re so perfect for each other! However, that’s not to say this isn’t worth seeing; the supporting cast pick up the slack, particularly a brilliant James Garnon (a stalwart at the Globe) as Don Pedro, an incredibly, butterflies-in-your-stomach handsome Lloyd Everitt as Claudio and Peter Wight as a very successful Dogberry. The idea of using children as George Seacole and Hugh Oatcake was very clever and Kingsley Ben-Adir fully played up to the comedy of this situation. I also liked the few lines that Katherine Carlton had as Beryl, although she kind of looked as if she was on the verge of bursting into tears quite a lot of the time – maybe it was the make-up? I liked the setting of the play during WW2; the costumes were lovely, and the scenes where Beatrice and Benedick ‘overhear’ the other’s love for each other were very well done, gaining lots of laughter from the audience. Overall, a good production, but not a great one.
This isn't a bad production, just not a particularly good one. Given the stella cast and with Mr Rylance directing, perhaps my expectations were just too high. James Earl Jones needs a little more rehearsal time and the set needs lagging - some of the dialogue is very hard to hear at full pelt, and that was in the middle of the stalls - not sure what it must have been like up in the gods. Too many echoes. I know Much Ado isn't regarded as Shakespeare's finest, but given this plays credentials, I expected more.
Three stars is possibly a tad generous but I did quite enjoy the evening - however, very glad I paid preview prices for the seats. I have no problems with a 1940s setting with American GIs in a British village but the set (a very large structure like a cheap coffee table) left me cold. Some of the acting was excellent from the other cast members and the policeman was certainly very funny. However, even with my excellent hearing I struggled with many of the cast's diction and was glad that I knew the play well enough. Overall this was a disappointing production that did seem to miss the mark on several aspects - and clearly the audience was confused with many people laughing at parts that are actually tragic. If you want to see James Earl Jones or Vanessa Redgrave, I'd go - though certainly nowhere near their finest work. But don't bother if you want Shakespeare as there must be better productions.