When does getting the audience to laugh turn into self-indulgent playing to the gallery? In the Guardian, Michael Billington, always lukewarm about the kind of theatre he finds at Shakespeare's Globe, accuses the cast of Much Ado About Nothing of shameless mugging and being in thrall to the groundlings. I think he's badly mistaken about this superb production, and hope to explain why.
It might seem obvious that comedy is supposed to make the audience laugh, but I've seen enough comedies on stage which have been watched in stony silence to feel that the message can't be rammed home too often. But Shakespeare's Globe lends itself to intense interaction between players and audience, and it's true there's a constant risk of taking the search for laughs too far. At a Q & A with the cast of All's Well That End's Well I asked Peter Hamilton Dyer, who has acted many times at the Globe, about the red line that actors shouldn't cross. 'It's a constant danger -- you must never lose the connection to the play on stage. You know when you have lost it.'
So the elephant trap undoubtedly exists, but do the actors in Jeremy Herrin's hilarious production fall into it? With the single exception of the actor playing Dogberry, they don't. Billington's criticism, however, isn't aimed at Dogberry and his crew of watchmen, but at Beatrice and Benedick, who are played in exhilarating comic style by Eve Best and Charles Edwards. He objects in particular to a scene in which Beatrice, sent to summon Benedick to dinner, comes on ringing a very loud bell. But this gesture is the opposite of a search for a cheap laugh; Beatrice is described by Hero as 'self-endeared', and both she and Benedick are attention-seekers. Playing to the gallery is what they do, in a shameless hunt for approval and applause. Both of them are self-consciously 'characters' who are in flight from their own weaknesses. As with Roger Allam's Olivier-winning Falstaff in 2010, the constant need to seek approval from the groundlings isn't an add-on business, but goes to the core of their characters. Best captures Beatrice's inner vulnerability at the moment when she suddenly drops her braying dialogue with the audience and tells Don Pedro softly she did once lose the heart of Benedick in a past romance: 'Indeed, my lord, he lent it me awhile...' This is great acting, finely calibrated. The wonderful heart-stopping thing about Eve Best is her ability to project a certain kind of eccentricity; her Beatrice is on the verge of becoming not so much a shrivelled spinster, but something much worse -- an old bat, a kind of bag-lady. For Charles Edwards as Benedick, playing to the gallery with his well-rehearsed speeches about the evils of matrimony is also part of a well-honed external persona as the confirmed bachelor. When he's accused of being the prince's jester by Beatrice, it's a jibe that really hits home. Suddenly jolted into seriousness by the crisis caused by Claudio's rejection of Hero, he realises more quickly than Beatrice that crowd-pleasing is not enough.
I've seen a number of excellent B&B pairings -- Harriet Walter being sprayed with a garden hose for the RSC opposite Nicholas Le Prevost, Simon Russell Beale taking a ducking on stage at the National with Zoe Wanamaker, and Tamsin Greig winning an Olivier award opposite the too-youthful Joseph Millson, also for the RSC. Best and Edwards are up with the very best of them, and possibly outclass the lot. When they finally kiss, putting an end to three hours of UST (unresolved sexual tension), there is an explosion of cheering and applause from the audience. That's the kind of involvement in the action which you don't get in a conventional indoor theatre, but it's integral to the open-air Globe experience. It may make some critics queasy, but I like to imagine it restores to Shakespearean performance a spontaneity which the original audiences experienced 400 years ago.
Jeremy Herrin's production is selling out on the strength of the central performances, but the rest of the cast are very impressive. I particularly like Philip Cumbus in the role of Claudio, a difficult part. He makes Claudio an embarrassed misfit who doesn't have a clue how to behave with women. Even as he rejects Hero in church, he still embraces her -- a deft psychological touch which I haven't seen before but which makes perfect sense. Joseph Marcell as Leonato is also deeply impressive, particularly as he reacts in fury and disbelief to his daughter's disgrace.
On the night I saw the play it drizzled, so sunny Messina it wasn't, but it made me recall my only trip to Sicily, when it rained almost continuously. The production design and the accompanying music hint at the island's Arab and Moslem heritage. The wooden screening of Leonato's house, Dogberry's red fez and Turkish pantaloons, and the incense-rich Moroccan lanterns aren't just decorative -- they suggest a world in which women like Hero can be made to disappear. Jeremy Herrin is the director responsible for a number of terrific productions at the Royal Court, including Polly Stenham's That Face and Tusk Tusk, and is best known for his work with new writing. This high-octane production shows he's equally at home with Shakespeare.