When husband Gerard rang up for tickets on the day booking opened for Much Ado About Nothing at the Wyndham, they had all sold out! This was deeply disappointing – until the booking clerk said “hang on – as we were talking two returns came in; the stalls, seven rows from the front. Do you want them?” The stalls – seven rows from the front? Well, alright then.
So on Saturday (20 August) we took our seats in the stalls seven rows from the front for a fantastic production of a favourite play. I’d never been to this lovely theatre before. It was established in 1899 by actor manager and former surgeon in the Union Army (under his own name of Culverwell) during the American Civil War, Charles Wyndham. According to his Oxford DNB entry, he was regarded as the “ideal comedy actor” by Wilde and Shaw and “His stage persona was the model for John Worthing in Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest”.
Wyndham clearly had stage presence; the same must be said of David Tennant and Catherine Tate. But this production of Much Ado did not rely merely on the presence of its two stars. The production was witty, original, exuberant, and the entire cast was faultless. It was set in the aftermath of the Falklands conflict, complete with 80s costumes and music – and the setting really worked. This isn’t always the case: if I see one more Mussolini/Richard III for example I think I will scream. But it’s marvellous to see Shakespeare given a modern touch without robbing the language of its power and beauty, or the story of its impact, and that’s exactly what this production achieved.
One thing did puzzle me and that was the inclusion of Leonata’s wife Innogen and the omission of his brother Antonio. Perhaps the idea was to give a more authoritative female voice to a play in which men have a great deal to say about controlling female sexuality. In the 1600 edition of the play Innogen is listed as Leonata’s wife and enters on stage in Act 1 Scene 1 and Act II Scene 2, but she never speaks and her role is never developed; she is not even present at her daughter Hero’s wedding. Subsequent editors, the first being one Theobold in 1733, have regarded her inclusion as an error and deleted her from the text. It is possible, however, argues Michael D Friedman, to imagine that she was intended as a non-speaking part whose role was to embody the virtues of the ideal Elizabethan wife: “chastity, obedience and silence”.
Nevertheless it was, like so much in the production, an interesting innovation. The scenes where Benedick and Beatrice overhear their friends describing their love for one another are made for theatrical flights of fancy. But no spoilers: I will not reveal the setting and choreography in this version, only say that the stage business was hilarious, wild, sheer joy. Tennant and Tate as Benedick and Beatrice were perfect. Their awareness of the audience really drew you in; I shall carry with me for a long time the image of Tennant standing at the front of the stage holding us in the palm of his hand.
As we left the theatre, Gerard remarked that their performances were “real eye-openers.” “Well,” said I, “if they are good enough for Doctor Who they are good enough for Shakespeare. And David Tennant can really dance!”
For information about the play, which sadly is sold out, see the Wyndham Theatre Website - http://www.boxoffice.co.uk/Arts-and-Theatre-Tickets/Plays/Much-Ado-About-Nothing-Tickets.aspx
Michael D Friedman, “Hush’d on Purpose to Grace Harmony”: Wives and Silence in “Much Ado About Nothing”, Theatre Journal, Vol 42, No. 3, Women and/in Drama (Oct., 1990); pp. 350-363
Allison Gaw, Is Shakespeare’s Much Ado a Revised Earlier Play?, PMLA, Vol. 50, No.3 (Sep., 1935), pp. 715-738
Michael Read, ‘Wyndham, Sir Charles (1837–1919)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2011