A fan of Shakespeare – I suppose you could put it that way. I actually worked at the Globe Theatre as a tour guide for a long time, so I’m about as knowledgeable as I think a non-expert can get (but I still think Henry VIII is TERRIBLE – he was not having a good month when he wrote that one).
I actually saw that production of Much Ado when it was put on. (On the cheapest ticket possible – I had assumed, in my innocence, that a restricted leg room seat wouldn’t be a problem for me, since I’m all of 5’3. That was not the case).
Much Ado is one of my favourite plays – Beatrice and Benedick really are the…grandparents of the romantic-comedy – but it is not unflawed. The play spends more time on Don John’s plotting than is really warranted – Shakespeare isn’t really interested in him as a character, and it shows. Modern audiences REALLY struggle with Claudio as a happy ending for Hero (he’s not the WORST romantic partner in a Shakespeare comedy, but only because the douchebags in Cymbeline and All’s Well That Ends Well are WORSE). And then there’s Dogberry – or, as I like to call him, FUCKING Dogberry.
It’s theoretically possible that the part was funny in Shakespeare’s time – it was written for Will Kemp (I think), who first played Falstaff – but it requires a touch of magic almost to make it work for a modern audience. His mangling of language simply doesn’t entertain the way it’s intended too (which is why so many productions give Dogberry a tic or characteristic beyond what’s in the script – a trick which can backfire hugely). It really is a thankless part – almost every time I see the play I can feel it grind to a halt as soon as Dogberry enters, and it’s almost never the actor’s fault. (While I don’t love the film, Nathan Fillion in Joss Whedon’s Much Ado is almost the only example I can think of who was genuinely funny).
As for the Tennant-Tate production, I have a couple of thoughts on it, some positive, some negative. I remember it feeling quite LONG in performance – partly, I suspect because there’s an awful lot of stage…business, and it slows things up. Shakespeare didn’t have sets, and the plays aren’t written to accommodate sixty second scene changes. That production also had a revolve, if I remember rightly, which is one of those set elements that tends to irritate me – they rarely feel essential to the show. (I’ve seen a lot of plays in the Olivier Theatre at the National, ALL of which use a revolve, whether needed or not – the only time it felt like it added to the production was the Comedy of Errors a few years back – so that may explain my dislike of the device).
And Much Ado shouldn’t FEEL long, Much Ado should fizz along at a brisk, playful pace – particularly if the drama bomb of the wedding scene is going to have the impact it ought.
I didn’t love Catherine Tate as Beatrice. Somewhat against my expectation, I felt that she nailed the dramatic scenes, but struggled with the comedy. I felt like she overplayed the jokes a lot of the time – Beatrice is meant to be witty, but she’s never broad the way Tate plays her all the way through. I also thought she wasn’t helped by the way they staged the eavesdropping scene. Beatrice and Benedick hearing they’re beloved is one of Shakespeare’s great comedy set pieces, but it’s impossible for Tate to play any subtlety when she’s dangling from bungee cord!
(On a more minor point, while I think Tate comes into her own in the wedding scene, I hated the way they costumed her for it – the dress was lovely, and she looked great, but she also clearly couldn’t really move in it, which is a bit of an obstacle for her acting).
Tennant was a damn near perfect Benedick though. It was this production that really brought home to me just how much of an arc Benedick has in the play, evolving from…well a self-satisfied prick, frankly, into a defender of wronged women. The whole wedding scene was beautifully staged, and a note I loved was Benedick constantly putting himself between Hero and Leonato.
Tennant hits all the marks of Benedick’s growth perfectly, while still being very funny in the part. (Tate is also at her best when playing off him – which is what you want in Much Ado). Another bit of staging I liked in the wedding was Beatrice constantly retreating behind the rows of chairs, and Benedick carefully moving them so he can get close to her. It illustrates so much about their past – she loves him, but she’s afraid of being…betrayed or misled, and so puts up barriers between them (Shakespeare never tells us, but it’s implied there was definitely something before the play).
The 80s trappings are…fine I guess – seeing Hero in the Diana-esque dress gave the audience a little frisson, but other than that I don’t think they add much. The male cast members look great in the naval uniforms though, I’ll say that for it.
It’s not the BEST Much Ado I’ve ever seen, but it’s a pretty respectable one – and Tennant is as good a Benedick as I think there’s ever been.