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Debo Demurs while Josie Jives

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It's not unprecedented, but it's fairly unusual, for an aggrieved director to hit back at ungrateful critics, and Deborah Warner certainly makes a good point in the Guardian today by calmly pointing out that one floridly expressed objection to her production of The School For Scandal at the Barbican -- "If the Earl of Rochester and Bertolt Brecht got together in Shoreditch one night and decided to host a rave (inviting Handel to man the decks), the result might look a lot like..." -- actually constitues a good summary of what she was trying to achieve.

I dare say in finding Josie Rourke's staging of Much Ado About Nothing at Wyndham's with David Tennant and Catherine Tate both vulgar and coarse-grained, I'm responding exactly as she would have wished: this is the 1980s, after all, and the costumes are as hideous as the music.

But I think there's a difference between Debo's debauch and Josie's jauntiness. The Sheridan show is not actually an update of any kind, or a transplant, it's a tough new look with an absolute adherence to the spine of the comedy in its ruthless exposition of a corrupt, hedonistic, hypocritical, morally duplicitous and reputation-destroying society. And it's breathtakingly audacious in a proper way.

Rourke's roistering, on the other hand, strikes me as superficial, simple-minded and immune, at almost every point in the evening, to the hidden depths and poetic beauty of a play that shades from prose into verse, bitchiness into balm and comedy into rich understanding. It's a lovely swirl of a play here rendered into karaoke night on shore leave in a place you don't want a postcard from.

What the hell is going on with Dogberry and Verges, for instance? For a start, the watch scenes are torn to shreds. Sixthly, John Ramm's Dogberry is done as a poor man's Rambo and, thirdly, Mike Grady's Verges is a bumbling colonial remnant in a linen suit who's walked in from another production altogether.

Good to see Grady on a stage again, though, many years after he popped up regularly at the Royal Court in schoolboy plays, graduating to Robert Lindsay's ridiculous revolutionary sidekick in Citizen Smith on television.

Both productions have an undoubted appeal to young audiences, though whether or not that amounts to an endorsement of them is open to debate. Libby Purves in The Times, for instance, reports that a young girl sitting near her was training her binoculars on David Tennant's crotch when he turned up at Leonato's party as a lacily clad, blonde transvestite. I, on the other hand, was looking at my feet.

"Director's theatre" has always been a dirty word in the British critical lexicon, a view based on the astonishing misconception that a director's duty is somehow towards the play rather than the audience, the author's "intentions" rather than their animation.

On the basis of flouting those criteria, I should have liked Much Ado more than I do. But I jib at the somewhat sordid desperation to please element in the show, while acknowledging that Tennant and Tate certainly have a good double act going even if it doesn't qualify in the same category as Smith and Stephens, Dench and Sinden or Wanamaker and Russell Beale.

Oh, and Eve Best at the Globe is infinitely more delightful and emotionally resourceful than Tate, who uses television comedy vocal mannerisms to secure laughs she's not sure about. A much cleverer performance is Katherine Parkinson's as Lady Teazle in The School for Scandal; she completely by-passes her technical comedy tricks in The IT Crowd on the box to find something both mischievous and true in her performance.

But then Parkinson is not, like Tate, under pressure to please her TV following, and the cultural climate of the Barbican is more conducive to serious work, probably, than the frenetic bear-pit of Wyndham's right by Leicester Square tube station.

We're told that Much Ado is completely sold-out and, in one meaning of that phrase, it certainly is. In another, I'm not sure whether to believe the hype. Sometimes saying you're "sold out" rebounds on you when people don't bother to try and buy tickets.

One positive indicator, though, is that last night's first night audience did not have the luxury of a centre aisle in the stalls, as is usual these days; that's a sign that the box office needs every seat it can get its hands on.

And there are signs up outside suggesting that while the management has no qualms in cashing in on their star names above the title, the public is disinvited from joining in the exploitation exercise: you are not allowed -- who made up this law? -- to ask for autographs unless you've seen the show. It's an interesting thought that SOLT members are now operating as public order officers.

Do the police know about this? Perhaps producer Sonia Friedman should put Dogberry and Verges to good use at last and station them by the stage door. Nobody's going to ask for their autographs, that's for sure.


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