Anyone who knows their Elizabethan bawdy will tell you that Much Ado About Nothing is far from the insouciant “romantic nonsense” that George Bernard Shaw supposed it to be. Nothing equals no thing, or the female pudenda. And in Much Ado there is a price on punani, since a woman’s rumoured infidelity – specifically her supposed loss of virginity – has terrible and shocking repercussions.
But we don’t come to the Wyndham’s theatre to explore the dark side of Elizabethan gender politics! We come for David Tennant and Catherine Tate, who play the lovers Benedick and Beatrice, the sub plot-that-thinks-it’s-a-plot. For the Shakespeare-averse, their unfinished business as Doctor ‘n’ Donna will surely give us a handle on what’s going on; and if not, the programme is at hand, which obligingly explains that the lovers’ relationship is a bit like Ross and Rachel’s in Friends.
The question is whether such courting of the common denominator pays off. And broadly, I would say that it does.
Director Josie Rourke throws one further comfort blanket our way, by transposing the action from sixteenth century Messina to 1980’s Gibraltar, with the soldiers/sailors newly returned from the Falklands campaign. Whilst the cut of its Gib might not be clear – the surroundings just look creamily Marbella – the show positively screams 1983. At the masked ball, the characters make like Adam Ant, Miss Piggy or Princess Leia. Lady Di’s whipped wedding dress makes an appearance, and the men are all fully Top Gunned out in aviator specs and super-tight white trousers. The music, too, is given an eighties makeover, with all the hey nonnys made electro-grooves.
Though Rourke hasn’t attracted as much ire as Deborah Warner has in recent weeks for traducing Sheridan (she got the critical equivalent of a tarring and feathering), putting Shakespeare in a ra-ra skirt has nonetheless made critics very cross. And to be sure, the concept is not a tight fight: the sex and sangría mood (bridegroom Claudio gets a lap-dance at his stag; his bride Hero a strip-o-gram at hers) leads rather improbably to the play’s puritanical hangover, in which the flinty patriarchs react more strongly to the news of Hero’s “innocence” than they do to the news of her death. Some directorial interventions were plain baffling, like Rourke’s decision to turn Hero’s uncle into her mother.
But sometimes a mismatch releases great frictive energy, and this is what happens here. The show is hard to beat for sheer exuberance, boosted by some well-turned cameos from Adam James as the quietly sexy Don Pedro, Elliott Levey as the still point of villainy and John Ramm, who plays Dogberry like a bumbling neighbourhood watch turned renegade vigilante.
As for the star-struck casting – well, it’s always fun to see TV lags using a live audience as whetstone to make comic sparks fly. Tennant does twerp hilariously well, but also switches to a dignified sobriety when required, although his fans (the Who-philes being out in force) were determinedly laughing at all of his lines. Tate plays for laughs, apparent from her very first line: “Is Signor Mountanto returned from the wars” (unfeasibly long pause)…”or no?” Her trick of hiding behind voices is entirely appropriate to the role, and she makes a plausible, if chippy, Beatrice.
Perhaps occasionally the pull towards laughter skews the scene – in particular their declaration of mutual love at Hero’s ruined wedding-cum-wake – and perhaps not all Tate’s slapstick is deliriously funny.
But the Shakespearean clan can be, well, clannish about newcomers, and new things in general (God’s holy trousers, a comedienne, with no RSC training!). I suspect the wily old Bard wouldn’t have been the least bit bovvered. He might, however, have felt pretty pissed off at George Dillon’s solo-show The Man Who Was Hamlet, at the Riverside Studios, which hypothesises that the plays were actually written by Edward de Vere, 17th earl of Oxford. Shakespeare makes an appearance, but as an illiterate oaf.
Dillon gamely takes us through the events and people in de Vere’s life – with a slightly chugging literalism – which might have inspired the creation of a Gertrude or a Polonius. It’s like doing a Stratford wordsearch (or Where’s Wally), with the famous lines and characters embedded in enthusiastic Elizabethan pastiche.
Sole performers are super-exposed to our scrutiny, and there’s plenty of time for irritants to kick in, like the Tudor-tinnitus soundtrack, or the snapped elastic on Dillon’s velveteen pantaloons. But the show’s journeyman charm is a tonic, of sorts, to West End dyspepsia. Maybe just fix that elastic.