Theatregoers at our long sold-out Whatsonstage.com Outing to Much Ado About Nothing at the National Theatre on Monday night (28 January 2008) were treated to an unexpected special treat. At our surprise, exclusive Q&A, the show’s stars - Zoe Wanamaker and Simon Russell Beale (who play Beatrice and Benedick) as well as Daniel Hawksford and Susannah Fielding (Claudio and Hero) – stayed on after a three-hour performance on to share their thoughts on the production, Shakespeare, working at the National and other topics.

Shakespeare’s comedy focuses on two very different couples as they fall in love and, finally, marry: the young Claudio and Hero are easily swayed by their emotions, while Beatrice and Benedick’s wit and verbal sparring both keep them apart and draw them together.

The production, directed by NT artistic director Nicholas Hytner, opened to rave reviews last month in the NT Olivier, where it continues in rep until 29 March 2008. It’s the latest in a series of high-profile, sell-out Shakespeare productions over the past few months, following Patrick Stewart in Macbeth, Ian McKellen in King Lear and the Donmar Warehouse Othello starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ewan McGregor and Kelly Reilly.

Monday’s post-show discussion at Much Ado About Nothing was chaired by Whatsonstage.com editorial director Terri Paddock. For more photos and feedback, visit our Outings Blog and for details of upcoming events, click here. Edited highlights from the Q&A follow …


On performing at the National

Simon Russell Beale: Is this really my thirteenth show here? My first one was called Volpone with Michael Gambon, that was over ten years ago now. I love the atmosphere around the building, you get a sense of community. I love meeting people in the corridor who are doing another production. I love popping into other people’s technical rehearsals. I think this building is not just about what you’re doing. I have enjoyed my time in the West End, but I have always felt a bit let down that it’s just the one show in a theatre. You can’t go to the Cottesloe to have a peek at what Katie Mitchell is doing or you can’t find out what Daniel and Susannah are doing next. It’s that excitement of this huge building. It does feel like a factory of course, but it is a very exciting factory. Also you find the best teams in the world in their various disciplines here. Nick Hytner always gives a meet-and-greet speech when a new company arrives and he always says the same thing. He always says “these people are the best in their field”. If you have not been round backstage, go and see the prop shop. It is just wonderful to see them make props, and go up to the costume department where they are making the most extraordinary things. I think all of that creates a huge creative energy. I do just love the fact that it’s not just my play here.

On Beatrice & Benedick

Russell Beale: They have nothing at all to do with the main plot. The actress Maggie Steed wrote an essay about Beatrice. She was playing Beatrice in what was regarded as an unsuccessful production at the time. I saw the last sentence of it because it’s in Zoë’s dressing room and it says something like “I would do anything to have the chance to play this part again if only to have a man like Benedick by my side”. I think the reason why they’re famous is because he is quite simply the best man I have ever played. I think she probably is the best woman as well, morally I mean, and they do an extraordinary thing – well, he does an extraordinary thing, which is to swap sides. There’s obviously the banter and the wit, but in fact they don’t have many scenes together and just a couple of lines in each scene. There’s just a sense that they’re good people who got the chance of falling in love and making something of it. I hate to say this with Dan and Susannah here, but you know damn well at the end they’re going to succeed while poor old Hero and Claudio have got a little bit more of a mountain to climb.

Daniel Hawksford: Benedick and Beatrice are true to their emotions, they say what they feel. I think with Claudio and Hero that because they are so young they don’t know those emotions, or I think they haven’t found them yet.

Zoë Wanamaker: Casting me and Simon at the age we are was part of Nick Hytner’s vision of it. I hope I’m not maligning Nick when I say that he has got to an age as well where he sees the play from the point of view of a middle-aged man. It can be done very happily with people in their twenties, but I think this is where he wanted to go with it. It isn’t young love but seasoned love, people who have been around the block. The play closes with Benedick and Beatrice talking. That is all Nick. They’re chattering about all sorts of things. They’re playing with words the whole time. That is the enjoyment of the characters. They love wit and there’s nobody else that they can talk to in the same way. They have that immediate relationship, which is why they’re bound to be together, they have to be together - they can’t talk to anybody else.

On Claudio & Hero

Russell Beale: Do you not think it is absolutely right that Nick decided that Claudio’s repentance is genuine? I don’t like the idea that Shakespeare was writing something where Claudio was somehow so callous that he would actually not repent (about how he mistrusted Hero). That’s why Nick brings on Susannah, to witness this repentance.

Susannah Fielding: That’s a pivotal moment where I decide I will forgive. If you don’t have that, then it all comes down to those three lines at the very end of the play and you wonder how on earth she can have found forgiveness. It is an incredible forgiveness to find. I think it’s probably a lot about her choices - there isn’t a huge amount of choice for her really. And she wants to make it up to her father and to pacify everything and to put things back in place so I think she does find forgiveness that way.

Russell Beale: Also she loves him. You don’t get rid of that easily.

Fielding: There is true emotion there and however badly you are treated it remains.

Hawksford: There is still a question mark left at the end about whether it will work.

Russell Beale: I think it will work. I hate to say this, but I think the repentance of Claudio over the grave is probably the worst written scene in Shakespeare. I really think it is poor. We know this playwright could write imperfect men - he wrote Leontes, he wrote Othello. That was a bit later obviously but he could do it. He just was having a bad afternoon with Claudio and he gave this sort of odd little song which doesn’t really make any sense. I think he wanted it to be a genuine thing at the end that there were two couples. I just don’t like the idea that there’s a little bit of doubt.

Hawksford: Maybe the reason that he wrote it so badly is that Claudio doesn’t know how to express himself.

Russell Beale: He is with Benedick and Beatrice on that: he is not a poet. None of them can write poetry.

On the use of a pool in this production

Hawksford (laughing): It was all my idea.

Russell Beale: I don’t know if it came from Vicki Mortimer, the set designer, or Nick, the director. As always with ideas in theatre, I don’t believe either of them know, I bet they’ve forgotten where it really came from. I’ve heard both versions. Nick showed us the set design with the pool in it and of course your eyes light up. In fact, I lost faith in it halfway through the rehearsals. I thought it was too obvious - there is a pool on stage and so clearly we are going to fall in it. I was meant to be the one who fell into it. It was one of the first things we rehearsed. After that Zoë was stuck with her scene, which is a slightly more formalised scene. We had a definite moment when we wondered if we could do it twice.

Fielding: Actually, it seems to work, because the scenes are so different. Benedick’s is so comic whereas I think Beatrice’s is awful in a sense. She learns so much about herself at that moment.

Russell Beale: I think what is good is how the pool is used differently in both scenes. I really like the idea that Beatrice gets in slowly.

Fielding: She has to get in very slowly and that is kind of what’s happening emotionally for her in that scene as well. There is this slow downfall, but it actually all ends up being good.

Russell Beale: I didn’t realise until late on, but there is also the idea of re-birth with the pool.

On their Much Ado performance experience

Susannah Fielding: This is the first time for all four of us I think.

Wanamaker: Actually, I played Hero once at the Young Vic.

Fielding: You never told me that.

Wanamaker: I keep it quiet. It was not a very good production. It was an unhappy production, but yes I played Hero. It was a very difficult part to play. That’s the only other time I’ve done the play.

Russell Beale: There are plenty of parts I would have liked to play when I was younger, but I would never have been able to play Benedick as a younger man. I could only play it as an older man because I was never a romantic lead. I am very surprised that I have actually agreed to do it. My whole career is like that – it’s all the opposite way round.

Wanamaker: I think Simon is right. I really don’t think I could have enjoyed (playing Beatrice) so much until now.

Russell Beale: They are parts that respond to different stages in life. We are an older couple and it is a different play now.

Wanamaker: I don’t think I would like to repeat it in a few years time. You can’t repeat things, you can’t repeat having a good time. I would be on my Zimmer frame by then so it would be a completely different play again. It is difficult going back to a play that you have had such a good time on.

On working together as a company

Wanamaker: I have worked with Simon before on a play called Battle Royal in this very building. I think the whole thing about acting as far as I’m concerned is that I only want to work with people I respect. That’s how you get better. It’s like playing tennis with someone as good as you if not better than you so that your game goes higher. If you’re playing with someone that you don’t have a rapport with or who you don’t respect, your game actually goes down. And if you have that energy, it is so much more fun. Also, we had time to investigate the play with this production and really look at it in great detail. We worked well as a team and we worked well as a company. That is always very important for me personally because I like company plays.

Hawksford: It is quite a close company as well.

Wanamaker: Very close. Everybody got on very early.

Fielding: I had worked with Zoë last year (in The Rose Tattoo). Having anybody in the company who you’ve worked with before is always a comfort, especially on the first day of rehearsals. There’s always a million people there to introduce yourselves to, many of whom you don’t see again because they’re always off in different parts of the building. It has been a joy really. Zoë is always helping me out and encouraging me and giving me moral support so it is really lovely to work with her again. We have been working together for almost a year really, almost solidly.

Wanamaker: I have to confess that when I started rehearsal for Much Ado, I wasn’t called some days … I found that really strange and I felt left out. It was a completely different experience with The Rose Tattoo. That was a massive challenge as far as I was concerned. We had a director who died five days into rehearsal so that was a pressure on the company that was very upsetting and we were very thrown by it. We had to galvanise ourselves because the show had to go on, literally. There was a kind of force of energy that made us do it as a company.

Fielding: Dan and I are now rehearsing for a play in the Lyttelton. It is about as different as it gets from Shakespeare to be honest.

Hawksford: Yes, it’s a play with 25 actors playing 450 characters with no dialogue and no story. It is just an empty space and people crossing.

Fielding: There’s no worry about learning lines! It’s very strange going home at the end of the day and having nothing to work on. It’s the oddest thing I have done certainly. It is called The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other.

On the success of this & other recent Shakespeare productions

Fielding: Many of these popular recent productions have something in common: they have great actors playing their leads and so people are attracted by that. I think something that this production does really well is it makes it really accessible so people can follow it. I sometimes go to Shakespeare and feel stupid and I don’t like feeling like that.

Hawksford: In the matinees, the whole of the circle is full of schoolkids and they are silent throughout. You think maybe they’re asleep! But when you look up there, you can actually see that they are listening and watching.

Wanamaker: I also think that Shakespeare knew the human heart so well and that’s why he is constantly re-performed and investigated and re-done. Also new directors come along and put a different emphasis on it, so that’s always interesting - if you’re interested in Shakespeare, of course.

Hawksford: He is so articulate. One of the lines that Benedick says to Beatrice is such a simple line “serve god, love me and mend”. It’s so easy and so simple - why didn’t I think of that? It is brilliant.

Wanamaker: I’ve always found that with Shakespeare the first ten or fifteen minutes are difficult to tune in to. Once you have tuned in to a story, then you can move on. If a production is really trying to stop you tuning in or is making it hard, then you switch off. You keep going to Shakespeare because the language is so rich and the humanity is incredible. There’s a human interaction going on which is so delightful and makes me laugh every night. It is fascinating to see how many productions you can see that actually re-ignite your joy of it. That’s what you keep hoping for.

- by Kate Jackson