Type-casting gives audiences what they know, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Josie Rourke’s SRO West End “Much Ado About Nothing” casts beloved small-screen sparrers Catherine Tate and David Tennant as Shakespeare’s rom-com love-hate duo Beatrice and Benedick, but the fit turns out to be wearyingly predictable. There’s similar TV firepower with Eve Best (“Nurse Jackie”) as Beatrice for Jeremy Herrin at Shakespeare’s Globe, but Best’s partnership with Charles Edwards’ Benedick is richer for being anything but predictable.
The two productions couldn’t be more different, although both helmers recognize the importance of conjuring a world governed by the actions of men returning from war.
In the West End, with an audience of TV fans lured by the casting, Rourke smartly goes for an update to ensure instant recognition. Hence we’re in sunny Gibraltar in beachwear in the early Eighties, the triumphant men in pristine naval whites presumably celebrating victory in the celebrated British skirmish that was the Falklands War.
For the party-in-disguise scene, Hero (Sarah Macrae) wears a Princess Diana mask and later arrives for her marriage in a copy of Diana’s famous “meringue” wedding dress. The disco music is of the period and Rourke clarifies matters further by staging unspoken events. Thus, the night before the wedding we watch both Hero’s hen party and Claudio’s drunken stag night, both of which feature alcohol and strippers as expected on a military base.
That detailing makes the depiction of the all-men-together thinking — which leads to the damning of innocent Hero — all the more credible. But not only does it diminish the presentation of hearsay that governs both the play’s tragedy and comedy, its visible effort outstrips its dramatic effectiveness. Although the thought-through period parallels work, engaging subtlety is lost.
In his impressive Shakespeare debut, Herrin’s production cleaves to tradition — the approach that tends to work best at the period-defined open-air Globe. His designer Mike Britton adds a faintly Moroccan feel to Shakespeare’s Sicily most clearly expressed in russet-toned costumes, and sets the play, most of which happens outdoors, in an orange grove. Britton’s other defining idea is to add a forestage which frees up the acting area and allows the actors to connect still further with the huge standing audience that wrap around the stage’s three sides.
That direct connection is relished by Herrin’s Beatrice and Benedict. High-spirited Best, whose classical legit appearances have regularly netted her awards, has a galvanizing theater energy. She charges round the stage, stopping with split-second precision to point a comic line at an audience member.
She also allows you to see that Beatrice’s unstinting way with words is a necessary defense mechanism.
As expected of so skilled a comedienne, Tate also lands almost all her laughs. When Tennant’s boisterous and beady Benedick refers to her as “My lady disdain,” it rings true, with Tate nailing every sneering putdown. But her multi-voiced sarcasm is distancing, showing more of the actor than the character, and the cumulative effect is sour. Ironically, Tate is at her best in the tragedy, when the women’s spirits are broken by the brutal rejection of Hero. Bereft of her comedy carapace, she reveals an impressive depth of emotion.
The men are more evenly matched. Tennant, a recent Hamlet at the RSC as well as the BBC’s “Doctor Who,” has comic pace and confidence at his command, but he too falls victim to the foregone-conclusion nature of his casting. The Globe’s Charles Edwards, most famous for creating stiff-upper-lipped Hannay in the long-running comedy “The 39 Steps,” also has precision-placed wit but adds nicely underplayed bafflement as his true feelings are revealed.
The Globe doesn’t match the wholly convincing male world of the West End staging, created in part by Rourke’s ideal casting of subsidiary roles. Adam James is a more than usually trenchant Don Pedro; Elliot Levey gives coherence to villainous Don John, by making him a prissy, repressed gay man; and John Ramm pulls of the near-impossible by making the foolish Dogberry amusingly pompous.
The almost unique marriage of comedy and tragedy in “Much Ado” means it remains one of Shakespeare’s most unsettling and underrated plays. To realise its potential, a production has to have what most of its male characters so ostentatiously lack: true heart. Which is what Herrin’s quietly effective Globe production has in spades.