Much Ado over Rylance's "senseless" production
Mark Rylance's production of ''Much Ado About Nothing'' starring James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave opened at the Old Vic last night (19 September 2013), where it runs until 30 November
…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… 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… 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… 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.
…one of the most senseless Shakespearean productions I have seen in a long time… what is hard to credit is the general incompetence of the staging… Being the great actor she is, Redgrave has odd moments of unpredictable magic… But much of her performance runs against the grain of the text… I am not being over-literal. If the production periodically lapses into coherence, it is largely through a handful of stalwart supporting players… But the set – by designer Ultz – consisting largely of an inset brown box, cramps the action physically and provides little to delight the eye. The ultimate impression is of a weird evening in which two great actors are left struggling to find their characters, and sometimes even their lines, and in which the great and noble cause of age-blind casting suffers a decisive setback.
…There are moments, quite a few actually, when one wishes that Rylance had kept his big mouth shut… I greatly admire both these actors, but having such elderly thesps playing these characters sometimes seems cruel and unusual punishment for both them and the audience… Jones's delivery of the lines is so slow and hesitant, that whenever he embarks a speech one worries whether he will get safely to the end of it… a persuasive, amusing Benedick he ain't. Vanessa Redgrave is much more fluent and often funny, though it still takes a bit of effort to accept a Beatrice who often seems like a mad old bat… Among the supporting cast Peter Wight impresses… But frankly it's a relief when this laborious and misguided production grinds to a halt and everyone is still standing.
…The result is one of the oddest evenings I have ever spent… This opening night saw only one stumble, but to be fair some of his longer speeches were delivered so rapidly (often under a quite large hat) that it wouldn't terribly matter if he was making some of it up. Which is not a criticism… the old boy has a magical twinkle, a hilarious physical expressiveness and drop-dead comic timing with the short sharp lines… As for Redgrave, she deploys all the magnificent indiscipline we love her for… Beth Cooke's Hero is sweetly mischievous, and a hammy delight with Penelope Beaumont's Ursula in the overhearing scene. Danny Lee Wynter is a terrific gloating Don John, and Michael Elwyn a commanding Leonato. There are cheeky devices which remind you of Rylance's record at Shakespeare's Globe…
At Wimbledon they sometimes wheel out tennis players from ancient days to lob a few balls at one another. Down at London's Old Vic, much the same is under way… this production creaks. Dame Vanessa, as she should be… carries great dignity on stage… But her Beatrice's energy levels seem low and she never persuaded me she was really in love with Mr Earl Jones's Benedick. He, oh dear, is really not up to it. The prompter has a tense evening. Twice Mr Earl Jones is given an armchair from which to deliver his soliloquies. Shades of Jackanory… The moment when Beatrice demands the death of Claudio is done so badly that last night it generated laughter…