Much Ado About Nothing (2011, Josie Rourke and Robert Delamere)

The best thing about Much Ado About Nothing, except the dialogue, is Delamere’s direction. Not the stage direction, Rourke did that job, but Delamere’s direction of this recording. There’s some ho-hum headroom stuff going on to keep actors in the shot, but it’s a phenomenal showcase of the actors’ performances. They don’t credit the editor, which is a shame. Thanks to Delamere, watching Much Ado really does feel like seeing a play. It’s very cool.

Rourke stages the play as… an eighties sitcom. The location is Gibraltar, the prince and his men are British navy, with the rich people apparently Brits, the workers are—primarily—Spanish. There’s no colonizing awareness, which is disappointing, but it’s just another item for the disappointments list. The setting does involve constant boozing from the entire cast, which proves interesting—if everyone’s making these decisions while wholly bombed, it changes things a bit. Or could. Much Ado’s setting—besides providing amusing costume choices, a gimmick for Dogberry (John Ramm), and some soundtrack selections—never actually matters.

It’s fine. It’s a good play—with some terrible toxic patriarchal bullshit—and the acting’s good, but as it progresses, the setting makes some of the play worse. Having Claudio (Tom Bateman) and the Prince (Adam James) be in naval uniforms while being viciously cruel to civilians is a look. Though nowhere near much of one as having their showdown with ostensibly grieving parents Jonathan Coy and Anna Farnworth, which Rourke stages in the church where Bateman has just denounced and assaulted fiancée Hero (Sarah MacRae). One of Much Ado’s caveats is the relationship between Claudio and Hero is patriarchal garbage. And Rourke finds a way to make it worse.

Of course, the point of Much Ado isn’t MacRae and Bateman, it’s David Tennant and Catherine Tate as the leads. As much as Benedick and Beatrice are the leads in a full-length production. There are long stretches without any Tennant or Tate. And then the third act when they’re background for most of the drama. Their first love scene, which is very amusing as far as a sitcom take, ends up dramatically inert. It’s also a letdown—staging-wise—after Rourke’s big slapstick and screwball swings in the second act, which both Tate and Tennant excellently realize. Though Tennant much more. She has to do real stunt work. Tennant has to bump into things.

Neither Tate nor Tennant get through the third act particularly well. Tennant tries hard for a good falling out with Bateman and James, but it barely plays. Partially because Bateman’s third act histrionics are so wanting, but also because Tennant just can’t crack it. Tate just doesn’t have the material. Natalie Thomas—as Margaret—makes much more of an impression. To the point I assumed she and James would make eyes at one another as the Prince ends up very much the protagonist of the last few minutes, his honor restored; Much Ado doesn’t have very high bars for officers or gentlemen.

Clive Hayward does best in the third act, the friar now a Navy chaplain, and Coy’s okay again once he gets all his patriarchal ranting done and realizes he should maybe believe daughter MacRae over some random dudes just because they’re rich. And Thomas—she’s good, she just takes time away from Tate, who’s the initial big draw until Tennant gets to show off.

So for the first two acts, everyone’s first-rate. Not Bateman. He’s acceptable but never out of his depth (though again, Claudio’s problem isn’t the performer, it’s the play, with Rourke aggravating it). Tennant’s great, Tate’s great. James is great. MacRae has some good scenes. Elliot Levey is a wonderfully smarmy Don John.

Oh, and Ramm. Ramm plays Dogberry as a paramilitary goon who idolizes Rambo: First Blood Part II. It’s an appropriate enough take—I mean, such a good idea Caddyshack II did literally the same thing with Dan Ackroyd—but it doesn’t go anywhere. And Ramm’s on one of Much Ado’s other inglorious lists… the actors who use feyness as a homophobic punchline.

Tennant leans on it as well. With Ramm, it’s to encourage the audience to laugh at him; with Tennant, it’s to encourage the audience to laugh with him. Because Rourke’s Benedick is a shitty cishet white man comedian. I think some of the other actors fall into it as well, but I didn’t mark them. Tennant does Shakespeare well, and having him screw it up is disappointing.

Though it’s Rourke’s fault first and foremost.

It’s a good staging of the play with some excellent performances, and Delamere does a magnificent job directing the recording. It’s also a lot more rotten than it needs to be. Much Ado About Nothing, the play, has enough problems you don’t need to add colonizing and homophobia to it.

The alcohol abuse works, though.

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