Comparisons, as Dogberry reminds us, are odorous. Nonetheless, they can be helpful. I thought I would never be lucky enough to see a better Beatrice and Benedick pairing than the RSC's Harriet Walter and Nicholas Le Prevost five years ago, but now I think I have. That RSC production came at the nadir of the company's financial problems and made little impact in London because it played for less than a month. Blink and you missed it, but it was a gem. Greg Doran set the play in Mussolini's Sicily, in a sun-drenched set from which one could almost smell the ripening lemons. Walter and Le Prevost, both the wrong side of fifty, were unforgettably funny. The more recent RSC version by Marianne Elliott was set in 1950s Cuba, and won an Olivier for Tamsin Greig as Beatrice. I felt that although it was a brilliant performance, she was a bit short in the tooth for the part, a criticism that applied even more to the youthful Joseph Milson, who played Benedick as a randy young man-about-town. I've also seen a production of the play set in British India, with scarlet Raj-era army uniforms, and that worked just as effectively. Like Hamlet, you can transfer this play almost anywhere (I see that a year ago I was speculating that Katie Mitchell might stage it in the Kalahari desert) and the Beatrice/Benedick story is so strong that it will come up smelling of roses.
I'm happy to say that last night's preview at the National Theatre of Nick Hytner's new production was a thumping success, thanks to the outstanding performances of Zoe Wanamaker and Simon Russell Beale as the middle-aged lovers. What dream casting! They are just the right age to appear ridiculous when behaving like overgrown teenagers. These two roles always strike me as among the best comedy parts Shakespeare wrote. Much Ado is the mother and father of every Hollywood screwball comedy about the battle of the sexes, and the characters appeal to our modern sensibility because they are equals in a way that the couple in The Taming of the Shrew aren't. Bringing Up Baby, Adam's Rib, When Harry Met Sally and dozens of other rom-coms -- they all spring from this play. Wanamaker and Russell Beale are lost soulmates whose intellectual kinship is suggested right from the start. She has her nose buried in a book when we first see her, while he is carrying a whole parcel of them. There's a great deal of pathos in the way Wanamaker stresses that Beatrice and Benedick have a past history -- a piece of backstory that is cleverly emphasised here. Her mixture of outer bravado and inner vulnerability is exquisitely conveyed. Russell Beale is a delight to watch, conveying a wonderful sense of Benedick's self-awareness. It takes a while for actors and actresses to get the measure of the large Olivier stage and auditorium, and this pair know exactly what they are doing. I won't spoil the pleasure by describing the two eavesdropping scenes in detail, except to say that quite a lot of water is involved and the results are hilarious. At the end of the play there's a wonderful tenderness between the pair of them as they gingerly kiss and get used to their new marital status. It reminded me of the RSC's The Taming of the Shrew with Jasper Britton and Alexandra Gilbreath a few years ago, which successfully conveyed the sense of two very lonely and damaged individuals finding an unexpected equilibrium.
There are other good performances in Nick Hytner's production -- Oliver Ford Davies as the patriarch Leonato, and newcomer Susannah Fielding as Hero. Trevor Peacock, never straying for from his role in the Vicar of Dibley, displays masterful timing as Verges, though Mark Addy as Dogberry rushes through some of the funniest lines Shakespeare ever wrote. Dogberry is the stage ancestor of all stupid minor bureaucrats and over-promoted policemen in our comedy tradition. We need to see his pea-sized brain spinning slowly away as his mouth grinds out out one malapropism after another. Addy needs to slow down, take the measure of the broad expanses of the Olivier, and allow the audience a chance to savour what he's doing.
My main gripe about this production is that visually it's a mess. Vicki Mortimer's designs and Dinah Collin's costumes are all over the place. This play is robust enough to be set in any place and period, but the director really should make up his mind what time and location he's aiming for and stick to it. When I first saw the set of a kitchen table and chairs I thought we were in for a modern dress production. Then in came Leonato and his all-female household, all dressed in long peasanty dresses and pinafores from the 19th century. Then came the army in what appeared to be Elizabethan military jerkins. Some of the cast wear doublets and swords, some are dressed in modern trousers and shirts. The set is just as confused and eclectic, zigzagging between different centuries and with very little to suggest Italy or anywhere else. Standing in front of what just might be a Sicilian palazzo and dominating the stage is a piece of 1950s modern-Scandinavian slatted woodwork that could have been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. There is an antique bed and modern metal chairs. Though it all spins around neatly on the Olivier's revolving stage, it conveys absolutely nothing, except possibly the stage designer's overwhelming ego. It's a measure of how good Wanamaker and Russell Beale are that they effortlessly manage to transcend all this.