Is it a revenge drama? A comedy? A tragicomedy? One of Shakespeare's most unclassifiable plays, "Much Ado About Nothing" has a range of tone and emotion that can seem almost bewildering on the page.

Is it a revenge drama? A comedy? A tragicomedy? One of Shakespeare’s most unclassifiable plays, “Much Ado About Nothing” has a range of tone and emotion that can seem almost bewildering on the page. Onstage, that variability makes the work unusually malleable, allowing a director the freedom to fashion it according to his or her taste. Although standout performances by Zoe Wanamaker and Simon Russell Beale constitute two very strong reasons to see Nicholas Hytner’s new “Much Ado” at the National, there’s puzzlingly little evidence elsewhere in the production of the director’s feelings for or about the play.

It opens with the women sitting in Vicki Mortimer’s high-windowed, Italianate courtyard in costumes evoking late 19th century Italy. They’re seated against one of two corridors of open wood slats — ideal for this masterpiece of hearsay and spying — that revolve to create different indoor and outdoor spaces. This easeful summery picture is warmed further by the men’s return from war.

However, even when events plunge toward darkness thanks to the horrifying machinations of bastard brother Don John (an effective though unusually heavy-handed Andrew Woodall), there’s little change in the temperature. The play vaults between high and low comedy and through pain, death and, ultimately, joy. If that means its emotions run on a scale from one to 10, this production sits between three and seven.

The range is at its most extreme in the central wedding scene where, wrongly convinced his bride has been sleeping around, Claudio (Daniel Hawksford) waits until the last minute to reject her. Sound designer John Leonard creates a resonant church acoustic that, while out of keeping with the visuals, adds flavor to a sequence unusually lacking in atmosphere.

Claudio’s actions appear brutish, but the scene doesn’t have the upsetting power it’s generated in other recent productions. That’s partly because we don’t feel shock resonating through many of the other wedding guests.

The major exceptions here and throughout are Beatrice (Wanamaker) and Benedict (Russell Beale). The two thesps are not only convincing, superbly balanced sparring partners, they show the pain beneath the resilience required to be single in a world obsessed with marriage.

Rarely has it been so apparent that their “war of words” isn’t just a matter of their witty natures but a security measure to disguise their sufferings arising out of a previous dangerous liaison together. That charges up their fresh admissions of nervous love. The naked fear they expose in their declarations to one other is truly moving.

Hytner, who memorably used a plunge pool with real water in his mesmerizing “Twelfth Night” for Lincoln Center, does so again for the “gulling” scenes in which the lovers are tricked. The device wins big laughs, but few of the other actors find much comedy weight aside from Trevor Peacock’s dim and doddery Verges, who steals the flatly performed scenes with Dogberry (Mark Addy).

The entire run was booked prior to opening on the basis of the play’s lead actors. Their performances may allow audiences to go home satisfied, but Hytner’s disappointing production misses out on the play’s true potential.

Much Ado About Nothing

Olivier, National Theater, London; 1,127 seats, £39.50 $80 top

Production

A National Theater presentation of a play in two acts by William Shakespeare. Directed by Nicholas Hytner.

Creative

Sets, Vicki Mortimer; costumes, Dinah Collin; lighting, Mark Henderson; original music, Rachel Portman; sound, John Leonard; choreography, Struan Leslie; production stage manager, Diane Willmott. Opened, reviewed Dec. 18, 2007. Running time: 3 HOURS.

Cast

Beatrice - Zoe Wanamaker Benedick - Simon Russell Beale Don Pedro - Julian Wadham Leonato - Oliver Ford Davies Claudio - Daniel Hawksford Hero - Susannah Fielding Don John - Andrew Woodall Antonio - John Burgess Dogberry - Mark Addy Verges - Trevor Peacock Margaret - Niky Wardley Ursula - Maggie McCarthy Balthasar - Thomas Goodridge Borachio - Daniel Poyser Conrade - Ross Waiton Friar Francis - Gary Pillai
With: James Alper, Katharine Burford, Daniel Fearn, Jessica Gunning, Simon Markey, Harriette Quarrie, Hannah Stokely, Matthew Woodyatt, Tristram Wymark.
Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more