In many ways it seemed inevitable; David Tennant and Catherine Tate’s onscreen double act in Dr Who bore more than a passing resemblance to Benedict and Beatrice that a production of Much Ado About Nothing could never be far behind. The star pairing has, of course, garnered a media storm and is set to be one of the hottest tickets of the year. In many ways it is a shame because, although the pair work well together, this is a production full of inventiveness even without the stellar casting.
Director Josie Rourke has transposed the show to 1980s Gibraltar, with a mix of white Naval uniforms and a post-Falklands conflict party atmosphere. There’s a feeling of end of term release as the Naval officers let off steam, a perfect reasoning for the cupid like mischief they deploy on the unsuspecting Beatrice and Benedict.
This sun and alcohol-fuelled hedonistic atmosphere also provides an effective backdrop for the wronging of Hero, falsely accused of infidelity after a carefully constructed ruse in a darkened nightclub. Certainly not your traditional staging but one that seems oddly naturalistic.
Against the revolving sun-kissed set and plethora of staging tricks, Rourke has assembled a fine ensemble. Tom Bateman and Sarah MacRae work well as Claudio and Hero, although a structural change to Claudio’s repentance slightly jars with the rest of the tone. There is also pure comic delight in the gentleman of the watch with fine performance from John Ramm as bungling Dogberry and a dignified restraint from Elliot Levey’s Don Juan.
So that just leaves Tennant and Tate. The pair has real chemistry and are clearly enjoying the reunion. In this battle perhaps Tennant comes out slightly on top, though given his Shakespeare pedigree that is not surprising. His is a Benedict full of childish high sprits, given to large gestures and a mischievous air. There’s more here though than the jester hinted at by one of Beatrice’s put-downs. This is a Benedict that grows up and leaves the childhood behind to enter the grown-up and scary world of love.
Catherine Tate, in her first professional Shakespearian stage production more than holds her own. Beatrice’s witty wordplay and feisty acid delivery seems almost tailor made for Tate’s sardonic trademark style and she imbibes her Beatrice with a formidability that shows she is no mere trophy wife for an upcoming sailor.
Tate’s comic pedigree and timing ads much to the character but if there is one minor reservation it would be that occasionally a bit more light and shade and less vocal acrobatics would give Beatrice a more rounded character. This is a minor gripe though in a fine performance that more than lives up to the pre-show hype.
There have been more romantic Much Ado’s and certainly more scholarly looks at this ultimate battle of the sexes, but few can match the sheer exuberance of this production. Yes, at times it may seem totally over the top but, as an accessible production that will hopefully see many of its first time Shakespeare audience return to future productions, it’s a great recruiting tool.