Simon Russell Beale
Oliver Ford Davies
Nicholas Hytners Much Ado is as polished a production as one could wish for. It shimmers, it gleams, everything about it speaks of quality, of class.
Take the cast. Simon Russell Beale and Zoe Wanamaker play the sparring Benedick and Beatrice. They make a mature but compelling couple, both a little world-weary, both overly cautious of their emotions. Though both performances have considerable strengths, for me its Beale that pips it; theres something so endearing about his Benedick, hes so giddy and puppy-like. When he asks: love me? Why? with genuine bafflement in his voice, after overhearing that Beatrice has feelings for him, your heart melts a little.
In fact hes perhaps a little too soft-hearted in the role, while Wanamakers Beatrice is, conversely, a little too harsh. Its difficult to buy their sudden gravitation towards one another, even with all the prodding and manipulation that takes place and theyre far more plausible a pair when snapping at one another than when being affectionate.
This may be part of the reason the production occasionally struggles when it comes to the dark vein that runs through this play. When, following the cruel jilting of Hero, the distraught Beatrice turns to Benedick and begs him to kill Claudio, the impact of the moment was blunted. Quite a few people in the audience continued chuckling along as they had in earlier scenes and there were only a few shocked gasps.
The comic sequences were handled more successfully, and theres a superbly entertaining scene when Benedick is attempting to eavesdrop and avoid being seen, by hiding his rather portly frame behind slender pillars and folding chairs all the time avoiding a pool in the centre of the stage that is pure brilliance. Beales timing is spot on, and the audience were in fits of laughter. Its a shame that Hytner felt the need to repeat the incident, with Beatrice, in a later scene instead of doing something new, but its still a wonderful moment.
Beale and Wanamaker are backed by a superb ensemble cast. Mark Addy injects real humour into the Dogberry scenes; these can often grate and drag but, in his hands, its impossible not to laugh at his self-important pronouncements. Susannah Fielding makes a pleasant, endearing Hero a role that can sometimes be a bit thin and Niky Wardley makes an entertainingly brash, mouthy Margaret.
Vicki Mortimers clever set blends traditional elements, such as Mediterranean balconies and a tiled courtyard, with sharp white walls and a striking, slatted central structure that allows plenty of scope of characters listening in on one another, of which there is, of course, much in this play.
So, yes, as Ive said, everything about this production screams quality, class, polish. I just wish that, beneath the gloss, there had been more of an attempt to dig further into the darker corners of the play (though, admittedly, when the women appear in black veils at the end of the play when Claudio is presented with the dead Hero, it was pretty chilling). This is a production that will delight many: its big, its slick, it does its job just perhaps a little too well.