“Much Ado About Nothing” is the blueprint for rom-coms, but what makes it fascinatingly unique is that it’s both comedy and tragedy. Except that in the Old Vic’s ill-conceived, witless, ill-conceived, dismayingly bungled production it is neither. Casting Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones (combined ages 158) as young-ish Beatrice and Benedick is an intriguing notion that collapses in execution, but that’s the least of this show’s problems. Blame for the inept blocking, lack of characterization and, above all, drama lies firmly at the feet of director Mark Rylance.
Inconsistency appears to be the only governing principle. Setting the play specifically in rural England in 1944 just about makes sense of the action that begins with men returning from war. That’s conjured via detailed period costumes and naturalistic props like a wind-up gramophone. But such visual detail is at war with the scene in which luckless actors use real garden shears to snip away imaginary roses on Ultz’s entirely abstract set. A dark, featureless, all-teak room under the same over-bright lighting state almost throughout, it’s dominated by a 12-foot high, flat-topped arch that looks like the world’s largest contemporary coffee-table.
In the play’s famous “gulling” scenes where Beatrice and Benedick are tricked into loving each other, the arch provides walls for them to hide behind. But the sightlines are so poor that at least a third of the audience can’t see the actors. Worse, Rylance then hides their faces (in Benedick’s case, his entire body), killing what should be uproarious comedy stone dead.
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That said, for those scenes to achieve lift-off audiences need to be already rooting for the two characters whose stated hatred for each other is really romance. But it’s impossible to care for them other than as as beloved stars since Rylance fails to set them up properly either in relation to one other or to the surrounding characters. Fatally, the opening scenes are confusing and crucial exposition becomes unintelligible. With no one’s status or power made plain, it’s impossible to tell who’s who or what is happening, hence the complete lack of audience engagement with the plot.
The ages of these protagonists doesn’t help. Yes, the text tells us they’ve had a romantic skirmish in the past but in an otherwise literal production like this, casting actors this old renders numerous lines and situations preposterous. Redgrave’s Beatrice is old enough to be Hero’s grandmother: Why do they share a bed?
Her Beatrice is far from mercurial, merely skittish when she should be excitingly headstrong. What should be rage at the treatment of falsely accused Hero (Beth Cox) plays as emotional display when it should be the upsetting climax to properly plotted engagement. Her potentially astonishing demand that Benedick kill Claudio merely raises an embarrassed laugh since James Earl Jones’s rambling, shambling Benedick looks wholly detached from all his scenes, using his bassoon-like voice more as narrator of his thoughts than as a man engaging with those around him.
Elsewhere, the overwhelming thought arising is: What on earth did they do in rehearsals? Basic questions like who the characters are and what their place in the story might be are, for the most part, unanswered. When the most affecting, thoughtful and connected performance comes from Ursula, a forgotten servant with precisely 19 lines (hats off, Penelope Beaumont), you know things have gone seriously wrong. That this willful work should come from Rylance, multiple-Tony and Olivier-winning actor and former a.d. of Shakespeare’s Globe, is as shocking as it is depressing.