Last night we saw Much Ado About Nothing at The Old Vic, and, fortunately, I didn't read the reviews beforehand. If so, I might have tried to scalp my tickets. As it was, I enjoyed the play very much, and didn't regret a pence of the £105 cost, or the lost sleep (I'm normally in bed by 9 pm) or even the exorbitant cost of getting into London (we opted to drive, and paid £25 for parking, still cheaper than taking the train).
But there were some disappointments. Like the reviewers, I agree that James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave are too old for the parts. (Almost all of them mentioned their combined ages, 158, thus proving that theatre critics can do maths.) Unlike the reviewers, I managed to suspend disbelief, for the most part. But I couldn't help noticing the stripes on Senor Benedict's (Jones) sleeve: just how many would an 80-year-old sergeant be entitled to, anyway? The fact that he delivered his lines with a mushiness that made them almost unintelligible didn't help me to forget his age.
And every time Beatrice (Redgrave) crawled around on the floor, I wondered if she'd be able to get back up without assistance. The casting seemed more of a device than a bold choice. Perhaps director Mark Rylance was trying to make a point, about the elderly and their ability to fall in love and remain gainfully employed in the military. Or perhaps they just both happened to be in town at the same time.
That said, I had to pinch myself a couple of times: I was actually only a few feet away from two of the finest actors who ever lived. No, I'm not a jaded London theatre-goer—yet. Thank god.
I also didn't care for the set, which was a bare stage (except for a chair, seemingly put there so James Earl Jones would have somewhere to sit) and a large box-shaped arch that hid some of the action for those in the audience, unless they were sitting where I was: dead center, row D. I couldn't help but imagine the wonderful set and props they could have designed with such a unique setting and premise: 1944 England, with black American GIs as the returning army men Shakespeare originally had in mind.
That premise was really what had me smiling so broadly during the play. And the performance of one actor in particular: Kingsley Ben-Adir, who played the lying lieutenant Borachio. This morning I searched the internet, eager to see what else he'd been in, sure he had a long list of acting credits. No, other than a few minor roles in plays and an uncredited part in World War Z, he's almost unknown. He graduated from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 2011, but I predict he'll have many more acting credits as well as acclaim under his belt before long.
I assumed he must be from the American South, his accent was so spot on. But since he doesn't have a Wikipedia entry, I can't confirm that, and all of his work has been here. Contrast that flawless accent with that of his boss, Don John (played by Danny Lee Wynter), which appeared to be from nowhere in particular, a dead giveaway that it's been manufactured. (I've discovered this from listening to way too many excruciating BBC Radio 4 dramas.) James Garnon, on the other hand, was completely convincing as Don Pedro-turned-American army colonel.
But back to Borachio: I found myself rooting for him, wishing the insipid Claudio (Lloyd Everitt) would fall off the stage and allow his love Hero (Beth Cooke) to be wooed for real by Borachio, instead of a set up whereby he woos her maid Margaret, disguised as Hero.
And when he sings...well, I think I lost my heart a little bit. Here's a quote from the program:
"Here Borachio plays harmonica and sings the blues in "Sigh no more" as if he had first heard it as a child on the streets of Tennessee."
This scene, alone, was worth the price of admission. Even if we'd taken the train.
Juxtaposed with this comforting American-ness was the very English-ness of the setting, exemplified by scenes involving the wartime nightwatch. The local constable Dogberry, played by Peter Wright (who also played the Friar), his sidekick the Salvation Army major Verges (Tim Barlow) and the two boy scouts transformed Shakespeare's 16th century Messina into 20th century England. I could have been watching Dad's Army on the BBC, with a guest cast of Tuskegee airmen.
Maybe it was the idea of using such a blended American/English setting: thoroughly American characters caught in a web of English playwriting genius. I sort of felt right at home, there in the fourth row of The Old Vic stalls.
So yes, I disagree with the critics, at least the majority of them. This was a brilliant production by Mark Rylance. And not because of its star billing, but rather despite it. As in many Shakespeare plays, it's the secondary characters who give life to the play, and in Much Ado About Nothing they're allowed to steal the show right from the generous pockets of James Earl Jones.
Knowing that actors with the reputations of James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave were overshadowed by their younger cast mates is encouraging. I can't wait to see Kingsley Ben-Adir in his next play.