Much Ado About Nothing is a play that often relies heavily on the sparkling wordplay of the two main characters, the verbal sparring tending to mask the brutal treatment meted out to Hero. But Nicholas Hytner offers us something different in this superb production: a middle-aged Benedick and Beatrice who are far from happy with their lot, whose wit and jousting mask an insecurity and discontentment.
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. When he swears that he will never fall in love, one hears the sound of a man who protests too much. 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. The many references to his stomach are highly apt and the comic potential is played for all its worth.
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. When she dons a servant’s clothes, in order to spy on Hero and Ursula’s plotting, you sense that she’s not straying too far from her own position. 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.
Elsewhere, although Julian Wadham doesn’t quite succeed in tapping Don Pedro’s hidden sadness, Oliver Ford Davies is a superb Leonato. Full of fury with, at first, his daughter and then with Claudio for his treatment of her, this is an old man seeking to recapture past glories and full of hurt.
Vicki Mortimer’s simple design, based on a slatted screen and a revolving stage, is expertly employed. There’s also excellent use of an ornamental pool. I particularly like the way that Leonato and Hero eavesdrop on Claudio’s act of penance, mirroring the way that Benedick eavesdropped on the plotters. Perfectly handled.
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.