What a contrast between the two major Shakespeare productions in London this week. The first took us back to the summer of love and a celebration of youth, while Mark Rylance's take on this witty comedy places two, er, mature actors at the heart of the action.
Rylance sets it in wartime England, where Don Pedro's influx of GIs causes disruption in the rural idyll of Leonato's estate. It's a nice clash of cultures but with a Beatrice and Benedick as uncharismatic as these, the execution is somewhat lacking. The subtle wordplay of two of Shakespeare's most loved characters is lost and it reminded me more of Last of the Summer Wine rather than Shakespeare.
Vanessa Redgrave's Beatrice first appears brandishing a shotgun and a pair of dead rabbits - the epitome of the fierce country spinster - and there's a nice line in sardonic humour too. But ultimately, there's no arguing against her age: for all her spirit, this is not a Beatrice looking for love.
James Earl Jones, however, is an even bigger problem. One is left wondering how this amiable, doddering old man performed "good service in the war"; his appearance is of a man who is looking more for the nearest armchair than an opportunity for armed combat - indeed, I don't think I've ever seen a more sedentary Benedick.
His unsuitability for the role is particularly obvious in the dual challenge. Claudio, having laughed off Leonato and Antonio's attempts to challenge him, should be dumbfounded by Benedick's challenge; it's the first indication that he has badly misjudged the situation. Here, the impact of that scene is completely lost by casting such an elderly Benedick.
Michael Elwyn is a fine Leonato, Lloyd Everitt is a nicely-played Claudio, Danny Lee Wynter is decidedly villainous Don John and Peter Wight is a nicely underplayed Dogberry and a lucid Friar Francis. Perhaps the highlight of the production, however is the song, "Sigh no more," given a particularly fine blues treatment – if only we could have had a few more numbers like that.
Much Ado is a play about late-blooming love, about a last chance for happiness. There's no reason why it shouldn't apply to a couple in the autumn of their lives but this is too underwhelming. Rylance says that all the impetus for this production came from Redgrave and Jones' desire to perform it: it's a desire that should have been strangled early.