Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
29 June 2011

The Doctor and Donna do Shakespeare

Tennant and Tate are an exuberant Benedick and Beatrice.

By Gina Allum

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.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

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.

Topics in this article :