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Much Ado About Nothing at the National Olivier

First Published 17 April 2008, Last Updated 30 May 2018

From the opening peal of church bells and the warm glow that rises across balconied windows, it is clear that this will be a traditional interpretation of Shakespeare’s Sicilian-set comedy of love, marriage, disguise and villainy. Caroline Bishop was in the first night audience of Much Ado About Nothing at the National Olivier…

Surrounded by those windows, which belong to the house of Leonato, Governor of Messina, set designer Vicki Mortimer has constructed a wooden stage revolve which forms the centre piece of all the action, cleverly creating different corners in which all the secret conversations, eavesdropping, plotting and scheming take place.

And there is much plotting in this play, beginning at the party which celebrates the return from war of Don Pedro and his fellow soldiers: young buck Claudio, weary cynic Benedick and Don Pedro’s outcast brother, the bitter Don John. Welcomed by Leonarto and eagerly anticipated by the household of women, including his daughter Hero, the arrival of the men sets in motion Shakespeare’s musings on love and marriage.

While the impetuous young Claudio (Daniel Hawksford) quickly expresses his love for fresh-faced Hero (Susannah Fielding) and a marriage is arranged, the naivety and innocence of their love is seen starkly in contrast to the cynical, world-weary attitude of Benedick and the equally indignant Beatrice – Hero’s older, unmarried cousin – who resume their long-held verbal sparring against love, marriage and each other.

As the meat in Shakespeare’s play, the entertainment always ups a gear during the pair’s scenes. Simon Russell Beale’s Benedick is a dishevelled, unpretentious middle-aged man whose distinctly round belly is put to good comic effect. As befits the character, his image is markedly different from his straight-backed, testosterone-fuelled comrades (in fact, you wonder how he managed to keep up with them at war without getting out of breath), but a good match for Zoë Wanamaker’s Beatrice, whose age, attitude and blunt manners (and drinking habits) are equally distinct from the other women in the household. When the pair’s friends set them up to admit their love for each other – in one of the funniest scenes of the play – both touchingly show first the shock and then the starry-eyed joy of hearing that the other loves them.

Despite the words they use to shield themselves from hurt (Wanamaker in particular suggests the disappointment Beatrice may have experienced in the past), theirs is a genuine relationship, in contrast to the superficiality elsewhere in the play. Claudio is quick to judge his fiancée after the scheming Don John (Andrew Woodall) plots to stop the marriage and even Leonarto (Oliver Ford Davies) doubts his daughter’s virtue. But helped by the loyalty of Beatrice and Benedick, and the inept policing of comic duo Dogberry (Mark Addy) and Verges (a scene-stealing Trevor Peacock), the villainous plot is overturned and love prevails.

Ultimately though, it is Shakespeare’s writing which prevail in Nicholas Hytner’s straightforward, uncluttered production. em>CB

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