Zoe Wanamaker and Simon Russell Beale teamed up at the National Theatre last night (18 December 2007, previews from 10 December) to tackle the roles of warring lovers Beatrice and Benedick in artistic director Nicholas Hytner’s new production of Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing, which runs in rep in the NT Olivier until 29 March 2008 (See News, 15 Feb 2007).

Along with the recent West End openings of Ian McKellen in Trevor Nunn’s RSC King Lear and Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ewan McGregor and Kelly Reilly in Othello at the Donmar Warehouse, the highly anticipated pairing of Wanamaker and Russell Beale has been credited with making Shakespeare as popular – if not more so – than pantomime this Christmas in London.

The Much Ado About Nothing cast also features Susannah Fielding, Daniel Hawksford, Julian Wadham, Oliver Ford Davies, Trevor Peacock and, as clown Dogberry, Mark Addy. It’s designed by Vicki Mortimer with lighting by Mark Henderson and music by Rachel Portman.

Nicholas Hytner’s “shining”, “exuberant” and “alluring” production won rave reviews from the overnight critics, whose raised expectations of the “glorious” lead casting of Simon Russell Beale and Zoe Wanamaker were more than met. More than one critic declared Russell Beale’s “disenchanted” portrayal the best Benedick they’d ever seen, while Wanamaker’s “wonderfully expressive” Beatrice also won favour. What’s more, the fiftysomething “age of the actors actually adds to the pleasure and point of the piece”. Beyond the leads, the supporting cast contains “barely a weak link”, with Oliver Ford Davies' particularly impressive as a “towering” Leonato. In short, “This is a Much Ado to be treasured.”

  • Maxwell Cooter on Whatsonstage.com (five stars) - “Simon Russell Beale’s Benedick in particular is a portrait of the disenchanted soul. He’s the archetypal middle-aged man, the life and soul of the party whose bonhomie disguises an underlying unhappiness … He also has the build for the part - this is the first production I’ve seen where you can actually believe that Benedick is the trencherman that Beatrice implies he is … Zoe Wanamaker’s Beatrice, too, is not the usual merry quipster. She exudes a bitterness right from the start; this is a woman who has, as she sees it, lost her chance at love and now lives uncertain of her role … Wanamaker’s naturally husky voice also helps. She drips scorn in the direction of Benedick, a man who has seriously wounded her. None of this is to say that Hytner’s production is shot through with gloom. On the contrary, the comedy is far from neglected and, with a better than average Dogberry and Verges, courtesy of Mark Addy and Trevor Peacock respectively, there are plenty of laughs to be had … Vicki Mortimer’s simple design, based on a slatted screen and a revolving stage, is expertly employed … This is a Much Ado to be treasured. You can’t help but believe that this Beatrice and Benedick belong together. It’s a salutary reminder that, whatever our age, there’s hope for even the most bitter of misanthropes among us.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “The virtue of Nicholas Hytner's shining production is its ability to strike a balance between the play's disturbing qualities and its touchingly funny study of two natural singletons achieving maturity through love. Part of Hytner's success lies in creating a genuine world on stage … Simon Russell Beale's Benedick is a bookish, bachelor-soldier whose carapace of certainty is invaded by a certain self-doubt … It is a brilliant comic performance that shows the transmogrifying power of passion … This is a production that gets most things right. Oliver Ford Davies' Leonato is a man driven into a towering, Lear-like rage by the accusations against his daughter's honour. Far from being a self-conscious clown, Mark Addy's Dogberry is also a self-important local constable who takes himself seriously and is thereby all the funnier … Hytner gives us a real world occupied by recognisable people. And if there is one moment to treasure it is when Wanamaker announces she is very ill. ‘Serve God, love me and mend,’ says Russell Beale with tenderness that suggests we are watching two people who have achieved genuine self-awareness. This confirms that we are watching a Much Ado that is not only funny but that also reaches into human experience.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “In this wonderfully funny, but also deeply touching production, the age of the actors actually adds to the pleasure and point of the piece … Both actors suggest a sense of clenched and sterile misery beyond their sparkling but defensive wordplay … The director also has a brilliantly comical coup de theatre up his sleeve in these great scenes of deception. I long to describe it but it would be unfair to do so … Russell Beale is in his element as Benedick, relishing the comedy, but also bringing a suggestion of gnawing regret and lack of confidence to the role … And Wanamaker, with her gawky body and wonderfully expressive jolie laide face, conveys all the ardour of Beatrice, whether in love, or in her fierce anger over the betrayal of her cousin Hero. There is barely a weak link in the supporting roles with an especially fine and moving performance from Oliver Ford Davies as Hero's initially urbane and later agonised father. Hytner's outstanding period-dress production is marred only by an ugly revolving wooden set. But the night will be chiefly remembered for Wanamaker and Russell Beale, two glorious actors capturing the wonder of love in middle age with unforgettable tenderness and humour.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “Zoe Wanamaker and Simon Russell Beale make a far bigger and better splash in Nicholas Hytner's alluring production of Much Ado About Nothing than I dared hope … Hytner's production bursts into exuberant, situation comedy … Designer Vicki Mortimer locates the play in a strange no man's land. The costumes mix 16th and 19th-century styles. Attractive, white-washed Sicilian houses are foregrounded by a revolving stage on which are placed hideous, wooden, vertically slatted screens and a paved walkway - all fresh from Heal's, I guess … Wanamaker's dazzling, fiftysomething Beatrice appears a vinegary, cynical outsider in her own family. She greets Russell Beale's comically swaggering Benedick, sporting a pointed beard and pronounced air of condescension, with tart disdain. The key to this vulnerable Beatrice is her sad sense of being a middle-aged romantic on the shelf … Russell Beale, almost caught in the listening act, slips headlong into the pool and rises all wide-eyed, with the comic-pathetic astonishment of a man who cannot believe himself loveable, as he tries to swagger his way towards dry clothes. In this brief scene, the actor devastatingly captures the essential Benedick … It is Russell Beale and Wanamaker who make big, theatrical waves.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (five stars) - “Not even Donald Sinden or Roger Allam, the finest Benedicks I recall, achieved as much as Simon Russell Beale does in Nicholas Hytner’s gently hilarious, subtly serious, always delicate revival of Shakespeare’s comedy. He nervously listens, then scuttles about Vicki Mortimer’s set — a box of slats within a Sicilian piazza — desperately convincing himself he’s avoiding detection. Then, finding nowhere else to hide, submerges himself in a pool from which he eventually emerges, a spoof Poseidon who has just triumphed over a shark. And when Zoe Wanamaker’s Beatrice appears to call him into dinner she stands bug-eyed with disbelief as this soaked lunatic poses, primps and swaggers like the lover he has suddenly become … These are terrific performances: both reminding us that a wary love abortively burgeoned between Benedick and Beatrice long ago … Thanks to some splendidly atmospheric music, and maids who sweep, scrub and occasionally canoodle, Hytner’s production has a warm and, defying the Olivier’s size, domestic feel. Moreover, Daniel Hawksford’s Claudio isn’t the usual smug pup but a shy, inexperienced boy genuinely appalled at what he sees as Hero’s betrayal, and Andrew Woodall is the best Don John I’ve seen.”

    - by Tom Atkins