Casting veteran performers Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones as sparring would-be lovers in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing was always an intriguing prospect.
The roles of Beatrice and Benedick, with their razor-sharp exchanges, are more often associated with younger, more nimble performers. Most recently in London, Meera Syal and Paul Bhattacharjee, Eve Best and Charles Edwards, and Doctor Who pairing Catherine Tate and David Tennant have played insult table-tennis in the roles. Adding two or three decades to the characters’ age is a distinct change of pace.
Under director Mark Rylance’s guidance at the Old Vic theatre, time has certainly worked its eroding wonder on those razors, blunting that cutting edge. The barbs still smart, but they don’t slice too deeply.
What’s left is an easy banter from a pair who’ve seen enough of the world not to get too riled, whose quickness of tongue belies a sweet affection.
While Redgrave as Beatrice still has a crispness of delivery, the booming Jones, his recognisable tones filling the historic auditorium, is more languorous in his approach, most comically effective with the punctuating oohs, aahs, moans and groans than with Shakespeare’s text.
In Rylance’s production, which reflects the actor/director’s past at the helm of Shakespeare’s Globe with its simple static wood panel set and house-lights-half-up lighting design, it is, in fact, many of the supporting players who shine most brightly.
Peter Wight makes an amusingly bumbling Dogberry and a magnetic Friar Frances, whose essence of peaceful clam at the climax of Don John’s (Danny Lee Wynter) plot to disturb Claudio’s (Lloyd Everitt) marriage to Hero (Beth Cooke) radiates across the auditorium. It is the same moment that sparks Michael Elwyn’s Leonato into hate-driven life and that evokes a dangerously softly spoken fury in Alan David’s Antonio.
The 1944 setting, with its nod to the African American Tuskegee Airmen, provides an interesting post-war backdrop – also allowing the city watch to be presented as scouts, leading to a little Home Alone-style villain capture – yet rarely takes the opportunity to explore any racial or cultural tension and prejudice of the time.
Instead, the production remains, for the most part, light and cosy, its endearing warmth and the sparkling eyes of its aging leads going a long way to forgiving any fumbling or searching for briefly elusive lines.