Wyndham's Theatre, London WC2
Opened 1 June, 2011

When David Tennant played Hamlet a couple of years ago, there was much bluster that he had only got the part because of his screen fame as a Time Lord, all entirely ignorant of his decade and more of RSC experience. I expect Catherine Tate will now suffer the same, although in fact I first saw her, like Tennant, on an RSC stage, and have always admired her more as an actor than as a comedienne. Of course the principal selling point here is the reunion of the pairing at the centre of the 2008 season of  Doctor Who, but there is also a natural dynamic to their performances as the protagonists of Shakespeare’s rom-com “merry war”.
Tate’s main persona is, let’s be honest, gobby: it makes her a natural as the quick-tongued Beatrice. In fact, she could probably be quicker-tongued on occasion and relish her lines a little less; but when she takes this to extremes by deploying one of her characteristic tactics, opening her mouth as if artificially enlarged by CGI to devour a word or two (as often as not “No”), the effect never fails to delight. Tennant, who plays Benedick in his natural Scots accent, is more wry, but unafraid to charge into all-out pillock mode by, say, appearing in Act Two’s masked ball scene in drag or accidentally daubing himself with paint during the eavesdropping routine.
Tennant in particular can also find the gravity when matters take a sombre turn with the false accusation of the lady Hero’s infidelity, derailing the play’s other love match. However, unlike Jeremy Herrin’s production currently running at Shakespeare’s Globe, Josie Rourke is here less concerned with showing the full breadth of the play’s dramatic palette. She deploys as much shadow as is necessary to keep matters in perspective, but her primary focus is on the up side. This is emphasised by Peter Mumford’s wonderful pastiche score; Rourke and designer Robert Jones have set the action in 1980s Gibraltar, and Mumford has fashioned some beautifully authentic slices of period pop, coupling the words of Shakespeare’s songs to tunes and arrangements cloned from the likes of “Careless Whisper” and “Holding Out For A Hero”. Benedick himself tries to compose a love-ditty on a little hand-held Casiotone.
Rourke turns governor Leonato’s brother Antonio into his wife Imogen, more I think to get another woman onstage than for any more conceptual reason. Anna Farnworth complements Jonathan Coy’s Leonato, whose rage when he believes the allegations about his daughter is impressive. Elliot Levey as villain-in-chief Don John seems a little uncertain in his wickedness; I think this too is a directorial decision that does not entirely work. In contrast, the low comedy of Dogberry is invested with all the well-meaning bumbling that is John Ramm’s trademark (as well as improbable military fatigues: I’ll just bet Rourke was musing on ’80s emblems and the actor’s name morphed into Ramm-bo).
To say that there have been more complex readings of the play is not to decry this one as simplistic. It does exactly what it says on the tin, smartly and with verve. It takes no prophetic skill to forecast that it will be the feelgood hit of the summer.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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