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A CurtainUp London London Review
Much Ado About Nothing

"Why my Lady Disdain, are you yet living?" — Benedick
Much Ado About Nothing
James Earl Jones as Benedick and Vanessa Redgrave as Beatrice (Photo: Simon Annand)
I would not count myself as "ageist" and so looked forward to seeing Vanessa Redgrave, the most wonderful Rosalind of 1961, as Beatrice sparring with her Miss Daisy chauffeur, James Earl Jones. Their joint ages are 158 and he has never played a Shakespeare role before. Mark Rylance is directing at London's historic Old Vic.

The production is set in England at the end of the Second World War with American GIs returning from active military duties. This means that James Earl Jones only has to grapple with the Shakespearean verse rather than an artificial accent as well. So the Americans wear uniform and the women 1940s clothing with Ultz's sparse set reflecting post war austerity or maybe an overspend on cast salaries. A square partition "arch" in vinyl dark striped "wood" further encloses the space and interferes with the sound clarity.

Redgrave is strong vocally but she is stooped despite the bravado dress of old fashioned jodphurs and smoking a cigar. Mr Jones covers his rotund girth with an army boiler suit and sprawls in an armchair leaning back, knees akimbo, in that classic "I am a man in control" pose. But those fast lines spoken by Benedick at the beginning of the play, full of wit and puns, are delivered rapidly and at the interval people were asking each other whether they were the only ones who couldn't hear the words. He improves as he reflects on what he has heard about Beatrice being so in love with him and speaks more slowly. The sexual chemistry between the two leads fails to convince and so that wonderful moment when they eventually fall for each other and Benedick comes to the aid of poor Hero (Beth Cooke) had less impact.

When Peter Wight appears as both Dogberry and with the help of an onstage quickie change, as Friar Francis we cheer up because his experience with the RSC means we have someone who can speak the Shakespearian verse. I liked too the Count, Don Pedro (James Garnon, long a Globe comrade of Rylance) and Danny Lee Wynter as his scheming and plotting bastard brother and architect of the villainy, Don John. Beth Cooke too is promising, here as Hero the spurned bride.

Rylance's production doesn't rise to the great tradition of the Old Vic, Burton and Gielgud's Hamlet and many great examples of the art of the Bard, and I do hope for their tender psyches that Redgrave and Earl Jones do not read reviews. While Rylance may be one of our greatest idiosyncratic actors of the current generation, I did wonder whether his Benedick could have fitted better with La Redgrave. His directorial skill was honed at the open air Globe where all too often crowd pleasing was the agenda of the night. Taking from the Globe tradition a finale dance cheers us all up and we agree that the second act was better than the first.

As Dogberry says, "When the age is in, the wit is out."

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Much Ado About Nothing
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Mark Rylance

Starring: Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones
With: Michael Elwyn, Leroy-Osei-Bonsu, Beth Cooke, James Garnon, Danny Lee Wynter, Lloyd Everitt, Alan David, Trevor Laird, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Melody Grove, Penelope Beaumont, Peter Wight, Tim Barlowe, Katherine Carlton, Tyler Hunter, Henry Markham Hare, Samuel Sembridge-King, Samuel Allum, Charlie Beazley-Clarke, Gene Gurie, Mark Ross
Designed by Ultz
Music: Claire van Kempen
Lighting: Mimi Jordan Sherin
Movement Director: Sian Williams
Sound: Emma Laxton
Running time: Two hours 45 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0844 871 7628
Booking to 23rd November 2013
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 24th September 2013 performance at the Old Vic, Waterloo Road London SE1 8NB (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)

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