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Sunday 23rd December 2007
Theatre Review | MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING | NT Olivier

Production: Much Ado About Nothing
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Producer: National Theatre
Venue: NT Olivier
Address: South Bank, London SE1 9PX
Box Office: +44 (0)20 7452 3000
Dates: 10 December 2007 - 29 March 2008 (in repertoire)
Opened: 18 December 2007
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Reviewed by Harriet Davis

This is a lovely, exquisitely judged production by Nick Hytner, which manages to convey both the humour and the underlying sadness beneath the play's surface. Simon Russell Beale and Zo Wanamaker make strange bedfellows: middle aged, quick tongued and both rather at odds with themselves, they fight off the inevitable as long as they can, before finally succumbing to each other's charms.

Much Ado is frequently revived most recently by the RSC and for good reason. It has a prevalently modern feel, with a strong female lead that feels like an equal to her eventual partner. It's nice to see a woman who happily attests to the opinion that she would rather accept no man than the wrong one, and all men as of yet have not been right. It's also fitting coming from a woman of Wanamaker's age, which indicates some shrewd casting decisions. In those rare moments of silence, we sense flickers of regret; Beatrice is after all childless, and without love.

The first act is playful, fluent and funny. Beatrice and Benedict cattily sidestep one another, hurling well-aimed insults and generally pressing each other's buttons, while their younger, paler imitations (played by Susannah Fielding and Daniel Hawksford) embark on their own romantic journey. It's also a credit to Hytner that he is able to convey a pressing theme; that women both now and then are essentially at the mercy of men. When Hero (Fielding) is disgraced, it is because of another man's slander. Beatrice wryly comments that were she a man, she would take up arms herself, but instead she must rely on reluctant (and physically unfit) Benedict. All this is wonderfully encapsulated in the masked dance, where the men wear long, phallic-like noses and prance about in a rather threatening manner.

The younger couple come into their own in the second act. Claudio initially weak-willed and malleable hardens into a cruel and unrepentant creature, while Hero simultaneously crumbles. Fielding is a capable enough actress, but lacks spark. The rest of the cast are spot on, with particular kudos to Friar Francis (Gary Pillai) and his assembled troupe of rude mechanicals.

The production is full of memorable imagery, and the set - constructed of wooden slates, - provides plenty of opportunities for physical comedy (the swimming pool scene is inspired). The revolving stage acts like a camera weaving between the action and lends the production an impressive, cinematic air.

The second act takes on a decidedly darker tone, and it's easy to see how Shakespeare's comedy could well have become a tragedy. Betrayal, loneliness and the threat of suicide loom large, before misunderstandings are resolved, and tragedy averted. The sharp contrast of light and dark is nicely addressed in Hytner's production, moving from the breezy, outdoor party feel of the first act to whispers and echoes in the ill-fated marriage scene, and later the wrenching graveside scene. So slickly are these effects integrated that they appear utterly natural.

Overall, a confident, sincere production that looks likely to leave its mark on plenty of Much Ado's to come.

Harriet Davis 2007

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