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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National Theatre (Olivier)

By Matt Wolf

  Russell Beale and Wanamaker

It's one of the joys of seeing Shakespeare's plays again and again, and in quick succession, that they should continually reveal themselves anew. And so it proves with Nicholas Hytner's take on that perennial favorite, Much Ado About Nothing, which has arrived at the National Theatre in the same year that Tamsin Greig's Royal Shakespeare Co. Beatrice won her the Olivier Award for Best Actress. That earlier production, long-since closed, was feisty, sultry, and sexy, its rhythms in keeping with the location, Cuba, where the director Marianne Elliott decided to set the play. This latest go-round is something else again: edgy, neurotic, its tone taken from the maturity of two leading performers, Simon Russell Beale and Zoë Wanamaker, who are, shall we say, somewhat more advanced in years than is traditionally the case with this text.


In fact, the casting makes sense for all sorts of reasons that go beyond the mere pleasure that comes with watching two such seasoned pros - previously teamed at the National in Nick Stafford's Battle Royal - tear into this most eloquent and layered of plays. And if Wanamaker's sour, very contemporary-seeming Beatrice takes some getting used to - this heroine seems less to have been born under a dancing star than battered this way and that by life - Russell Beale applies his own inimitable humanity to a part that against the odds he makes his own as he previously did with Hamlet: by the time this supremely deft wielder of words gets to Benedick's confession to his sparring partner, Beatrice, I do love nothing in the world so much as you, one is bowled over by the unforced emotionalism of that rare performer who combines acute technical command with unmatched reserves of feeling.


The staging, to be fair, comes into its own in a second half that demonstrates its own capacity to mend, the up tick in the production's fortunes absolutely of a piece with a play that makes a considered virtue of that very verb. Some may be put off before the intermission not by the emphasis on stage business: Russell Beale is in his element in a delicious scene that finds Benedick in every sense to be all wet, even if the corresponding moment from a waterlogged Wanamaker's waspish Beatrice doesn't quite land. But it's a real risk to play Beatrice quite as close to the knuckle as Wanamaker has chosen to do here. The advantage is that one feels the full weight of the shared history between a couple who - as Beatrice reminds us - have had their interactions before (he leant it me a while, and I paid him interest on it). But Wanamaker is so brittle that the pair's defining parry and thrust is thrown somewhat off kilter, notwithstanding our perfectly reasonable realization that people who have been round the block romantically before may be that much less likely to allow themselves in later years to be burned.


All comes well with a gathering awareness of just how hard-won is a match between Beatrice and Benedick that takes place (or so we are at any case led to think) at the price of the complete breakdown, possibly even the demise, of the play's secondary lovers, Claudio (Daniel Hawksford) and Hero (Susannah Fielding). Hytner makes something genuinely alive of supporting parts that too often count for naught - not just Gary Pillai's gently eloquent Friar but the wonderful Oliver Ford Davies's alternately quizzical and commanding Leonato, whose brother, John Burgess's Antonio, at one point produces a sword bigger than he is.


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