National Theatre, Lyttelton – until 10 September 2022
It’s probably fair to state that Much Ado About Nothing is generally considered to be one of the most accessible, “user friendly” of all Shakespeare’s comedies: the sparring of Beatrice and Benedick, while barbed, has real affection amidst the wit and these two leads are amongst the most beloved of all the Bard’s creations, while the maltreatment and misunderstanding of Hero can be played pretty nasty, ultimately it does all add up to a case of all’s well that ends well (sorry).
Simon Godwin’s new production for the National initially seems to be going for the full-on romantic escapism, from the bougainvillea and sun-kissed (Amalfi?) coast of the front curtain to the gorgeous Art Deco-meets-Italianate Palazzo mixture of colour and elegance of Anna Fleischle’s hotel setting: the whole thing takes place in the 1930s Hotel Messina, under Leonato’s management and ownership. There’s an abundance of ravishing period costumes by Evie Gurney; one would imagine the cost of Katherine Parkinson’s wardrobe as Beatrice alone is equivalent to the budget of a half dozen fringe productions.
So far, so entrancing: what follows however is not quite what might have been expected. This is an uneven Much Ado, one that is surprisingly unfunny (there’s some very heavy handed clowning going on, and a half-baked broadening of some minor characters that feels insufficiently flamboyant) but scores strongly in the more dramatic scenes, particularly in the superior second half. Despite the opulent luminosity of the location, it’s the darkness that really captivates here.
The fake funeral for Hero, performed in murky scarlet-hued light with the entire black-clad cast performing a full throated musical lament, truly haunts, as does the inclusion of the 29th sonnet for Ioanna Kimbrook’s captivating Hero. Parkinson tears into Beatrice’s act four “O that I were a man!” speech with such ferocity that it feels like a frozen breeze passing across the stage. Rufus Wright, always exquisite, handles Leonato’s descent from debonair bonhomie to fury and grief after Hero’s discrediting, with real skill. Ashley Zhangazha’s fine Don Pedro also makes a strong impression.
John Heffernan is an earnest, relatable Benedick, the sort of bloke you’d always want in your corner, and his realisation of his feelings for Beatrice has a touching gravitas. Parkinson brings her familiar world-weary breathiness to the female lead but feels oddly underpowered and heavy-handed until she really lets rip with the anger. There isn’t much chemistry between these two, especially in comparison to the gloriously warm and eccentric performances by Ralph Davis and Lucy Phelps in the same roles in the current Globe production.
Eben Figueiredo’s London-accented Claudio lacks subtlety, and, for me, Phoebe Horn’s sexually voracious Margaret (here a senior hotel maid) and David Fynn’s Dogberry (remodelled as the hotel’s head of security) would be a lot more amusing if they stopped trying so hard to be funny. To be fair, that may be down to direction but it’s interesting to note how hilarious, by comparison, Olivia Forrest’s strong-arming Seacole is by just employing a deadpan, vaguely bewildered stillness.
I enjoyed the transformation of Leonato’s brother Antonio, into his wife and co-hotelier Antonia (Wendy Kweh) and the sheer visual beauty of the whole staging is a source of considerable pleasure: if feels like only the National can afford to put on plays at this level of budget (Jack Absolute Flies Again next door in the Olivier is similarly sumptuous), especially these days. In all honesty, I prefer my Much Ado funnier than this (the Globe version delivers that in spades) but this is still an intriguing take on a familiar text…..and it looks breathtaking.