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Michael Coveney: Old Vic, old actors, new complaints

Michael Coveney is aghast at Mark Rylance's production of Much Ado About Nothing starring veterans Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones

By • London
Vanessa Redgrave in Much Ado About Nothing
Vanessa Redgrave in Much Ado About Nothing

The one thing you can certainly say about the Old Vic's Much Ado with Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones is that the ageing process is contagious. I felt as old as they looked (and are) by the time I headed off home last night.

Why? The strain of worrying about whether or not Earl Jones would remember his next line, let alone his next speech, was already taking its toll after the hopeless botched job of his first scene. He wasn't just back from the wars as Benedick; he was still flailing around in the middle of them.

The great actor is 82 years old now, and has had poor health for a long time. He still has an onstage twinkle about him, and he's less corpulent, as it happens, than Peter Wight's police constable Dogberry. But his glory days in Shakespeare are long past; the last of his three New York Othellos (with Christopher Plummer as Iago) was over 30 years ago.

He and Vanessa paired well in Driving Miss Daisy recently, though personally I found the play insufferably sentimental and I was more immune to the "magic" of their performances than most. But it wasn't a totally terrible notion to cast them as the duelling wits of Messina, though someone should have pointed out to director Mark Rylance that Earl Jones has never been the speediest or wittiest of actors, and Vanessa's radiance is not that of a brittle, pointed coquette; it's no accident that when she comes on, reluctantly, to bid the allegedly besotted Benedick to come into dinner, she does so with a butcher's knife and a bloodied rag. How unfunny is that? You're not playing Medea, love.

But she could, just about, conceivably be playing the niece of Michael Elwyn's harrumphing Leonato. And Earl Jones could, at a stretch, be impersonating a superannuated officer of a bunch of American airmen hanging around in the English countryside during 1944 and a Luftwaffe lull.

Mind you, Vanessa's last outing with Rylance as director was a comparable disaster when she played a waywardly Belfast-accented Prospero for him at the Globe. There are some wonderful moments from her, of course: she blows a tear-stained kiss to the roof of the Old Vic when recalling the star that danced at her birth; on this very stage, 76 years ago, Laurence Olivier stepped forward as Hamlet at the curtain-call, with Michael Redgrave, and said, "Laertes has a daughter."

But there's no comic continuity anywhere in the ensemble performance because of the stuttering unpredictability at its heart. The sight of Chris Larkin in the throng last night reminded me not only of his own excellent performance in Rachel Kavanaugh's brilliant "Dad's Army" production in Regent's Park, but of his parents, Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens, in the glorious Sicilian production by Franco Zeffirelli on this same stage in the National's Olivier era.

It's not many productions of Much Ado where you quite look forward to seeing Ursula again - and Penelope Beaumont is lovely in that small role - or wind up contemplating the subtleties of Borachio, very well done by Kingsley Ben-Adir.

Kevin Spacey was keeping a low profile last night - which is to say I didn't see him glad-handing in the foyer - as well he might. As artistic director, his hands-off approach to other people's productions has not paid off this time, though he must have felt safe enough having Mark Rylance in the building.

Experienced directors such as Anthony Page and Ian Rickson sat quietly bemused in the stalls. I was sitting right next to two of the finest Cleopatras I've seen (Vanessa has played Cleopatra twice, and lost both matches) - Janet Suzman and Kim Cattrall, both doing their best to join in but shielding their eyes from time to time - and right behind the funniest and most glorious of recent Beatrices, Eve Best herself.

Even one of Rylance's most delightful innovations at the Globe, the company dance at the end, is a hit-and-miss affair, half the cast in a GI Jive keeping an eye on the exemplary moves executed by Melody Grove's downstage Margaret while Earl Jones and Redgrave - as well they might - cower behind an opened-out copy of The Times where, this morning, they will rejoice to read an astonishingly good-natured four star review by Libby Purves (read our review round-up).

Incidentally, I'd fooled myself into believing that I'd scored an advisory triumph in having sandwiches restored on sale in the light-filled circle bar, my choice of refuge before curtain up. Alas, no sarnies again last night, so a swoop downstairs to the bear-pit of the stifling stalls bar was in order, where my observation to the staff that normal disservice had been resumed upstairs was met with baffled incomprehension. God knows what people who actually pay for their tickets make of this contemptuous front of house carry-on, but I know for sure that I wouldn't stand for it if I ran the place. Nor would Laurence Olivier.

Tags: Michael CoveneyMark RylanceOld VicVanessa RedgraveMuch Ado About NothingJames Earl Jones


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