Much Ado about David Tennant

I don’t think I’ve ever seen an actor having more fun onstage than I did on Monday night when I went to Much Ado About Nothing at Wyndham’s Theatre London. From his first entrance in a ridiculous golf buggy right through to the curtain call where he bounds across the stage you know David Tennant is just loving it.

The part of Benedick is a gift to any comic actor, but that isn’t to say it’s all comedy. Tennant clearly loves all the dressing up (his costume for the ball scene is outrageous), the physical comedy of the gulling scene and those speeches directed straight at the audience, but there are serious moments too, and he and Catherine Tate manage to control that chilling moment when Beatrice demands Benedick should “Kill Claudio” without a titter from the audience.

 Tennant’s theatre credentials are impressive.  In his first season for the RSC, 1996, he combined one of Shakespeare’s challenging fools, Touchstone in As You Like It, with slimy Jack Lane in The Herbal Bed and a straight down the line Colonel Hamilton in The General From America. On his next visit, in 2000, he played Jack Absolute in The Rivals, Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, and Antipholus of Syracuse in The Comedy of Errors. In 2008, though, his ability to communicate with a live theatre audience was developed to the full with his Hamlet and Berowne in Love’s Labour’s Lost, which even then felt like a warm-up for Benedick. He’s performed important roles with many other theatre companies too.

 In between and since, he’s managed to balance his stage career with serious dramatic roles on TV and film and the sci-fi fantasy of Dr Who. In a recent interview with Simon Hattenstone he made it clear how much he enjoys this blend of live theatre and studio work. 

When Josie Rourke began directing the production she couldn’t have known how timely this exuberant production would turn out to be. In her programme essay, Emma Smith writes about the period when the play was first performed:

 “For London audiences in 1598-99, conscious of ongoing conflicts in Ireland and in the Low Countries, beleaguered by high food prices, suppressing political uncertainties about the end of the ageing Elizabeth’s reign, the play must have seemed an escapist fantasy”

 With 2011’s ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Libya, high food prices and riots in the streets of our cities, we’re all again in need of the feel-good factor.

George Bernard Shaw described Much Ado About Nothing as “romantic nonsense”, and you could certainly drive a bus through the holes in the plot of the play. It’s as if Shakespeare was so enjoying writing the scenes that sparkle with wit and repartee he couldn’t quite be bothered with the tedious business of tidying it all up. Rourke manages to give the Claudius and Hero story some weight by adding a nightmare sequence where Claudio threatens suicide in remorse for Hero’s death until prevented by a vision of Hero. Is this letting Claudio out of jail free or just filling in one of those gaps?

Beatrice can be seen as a woman whose prickliness covers her vulnerability, her gulling leaving her painfully exposed. But Catherine Tate grasps the opportunity for physical comedy with a hilarious aerial turn. Rather than worry about any dark psychological examination, the audience can just surrender to the production’s good nature. As Tom Stoppard writes in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, “I mean, people want to be entertained “.

The evening, though, belongs to Tennant, energy and enthusiasm bursting from every pore.  And if this play, above all others, didn’t delight, it’s would be an opportunity missed. As it is, the audience is allowed to leave having experienced what Emma Smith calls “the fleeting, soap-bubble evanescence of the theatrical moment”.

 Catch it if you can before September 3.

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11 Responses to Much Ado about David Tennant

  1. Andrew Cowie says:

    I think you mean Josie Rourke don’t you?

  2. ClaireCS says:

    Hi I was there on Monday eve as well! In Balcony and found bits of it excellent and a lot of it bizarre – hated the aerial comedy for Beatrice’s gulling scene – and really disliked Catherine Tate’s performance generally – she wasn’t listening to Hero and Ursula , as she was so busy gesticulating to the supernumeries and there was far too much gurning (I was expecting “Am I bovvered” and “Donna Noble” to appear at any moment.)

    David Tennant however was excellent as Benedick and his gulling scene was super! John Ramm as Dogberry was very funny too – much funnier than the Dogberry at the Globe but over all, the Globe’s production this season outshines the tv starry version!

    • Sylvia Morris says:

      I haven’t seen the Globe’s production but I’ve heard very good things of it, and it’s always interesting to have two different productions on at the same time. It must be difficult for Tate as she’s never done Shakespeare before and Beatrice doesn’t have as many comic opportunities as Benedick does, so I can’t blame her for having some fun in the gulling scene. Hopefully the production will persuade anyone who’s only there because they’ve seen Tate or Tennant on TV that Shakespeare isn’t boring!

      • Jo Wilding says:

        Although sadly I haven’t seen this production, I do so agree with the last sentence of your comment Sylvia. After Hamlet there was a petition to Michael Boyd to persuade the RSC to film it (which they did), and there were many comments on the petition about David Tennant getting people to see Shakespeare who might otherwise not have done so, eg. “Coming to see Hamlet for the first time was my daughter aged 10 ……… she has never wanted to see any Shakespeare and now thanks to the ‘Tennant effect ‘ I have a daughter who has had Romeo and Juliet tickets for Xmas”.

        • Sylvia Morris says:

          I hope this production will bring Shakespeare to new audiences – I’m conscious though that most people had to book, like I did, in January, and there must be many people who’ll not have the chance. I’m really hoping that they’ll film this production as it would make another great Christmas treat – though it couldn’t be as joyous as the communal experience of watching it in the theatre!

      • ClaireCS says:

        Hope you get to the Globe production, be interesting to hear what you think! I think the Globe’s hope is to record Much ado for Cinema (and poss DVD ) next year – would be nice to have both versions in my collection! I’m taking 11 yr old niece to Globe version next month – her first Shakespeare at the Globe, hoping for good reaction!
        I don’t mind directors and actors having fun with Shakespeare – when it works! And this one didn’t for me – but that is personal opinion! *grin*
        Hopefully seeing the Tempest next at Theatre Royal Haymarket – will let you know how it is!
        All best

        • Sylvia Morris says:

          Thanks for your comment. Great news that they’re filming the Globe production, I hear it’s very good. Enjoy Ralph Fiennes in the Tempest!

  3. Adele Winston says:

    Does anyone know if there is a tape of John Simm’s Hamlet in Sheffield, please?

  4. Austin Pearce says:

    I am so thrilled that the Globe filmed their production of Much Ado! I cannot wait till the DVD comes out! The Globe’s production deserved to be filmed. I have heard really good things about it. I am sure that Shakespeare would be extremely proud if he was alive today and saw the Globe’s delightful production of Much Ado About Nothing with Eve Best and Charles Edwards. I don’t think that Shakespeare would have liked the version with Catherine Tate and David Tennant. I think that the production with Catherine Tate and David Tennant makes a great play bad. A traditional Much Ado is the way to go. The production with Tate and Tennant makes it look like a different play. I think that the Globe does Shakespeare in very good taste.

    • Sylvia Morris says:

      Thanks for your comment. With Shakespeare there’s room for every shade of opinion and an infinite number of different productions. I heard many positive comments about the Globe’s version which I didn’t see, but really enjoyed the feelgood Tennant/Tate production.

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