Young love is precious but perhaps late love, striking unexpectedly in the autumn of life, even more so. You can see why Mark Rylance, directing, might seek to explore this by casting Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones (combined age of 158) as the prickly couple Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado. You can see too why he might relocate Shakespeare’s comedy to rural second world war England, where men are thin on the ground, make do and mend is the rule and the brevity of life is all too keenly felt. And his staging does thrust certain aspects of the play to the fore: you really notice the significance of age, the immature haste with which Claudio (Lloyd Everitt) dumps Hero (Beth Cooke), the sting in her father’s challenge to him as “boy.”
But Rylance’s production raises many problems too. The concept of the soldiers as African American GIs stationed near an English village brings with it a range of possible complexities, few of which are really explored here. The notion of an octogenarian Benedick being on active service stretches credibility. And Ultz’s minimalist set, incorporating a huge arch centre stage may, as the programme suggests, honour Tyrone Guthrie’s 1940s productions, but it also muffles sound in a production that suffers many problems with audibility. It hampers movement too: there’s too much stop and start for a play that needs to be nimble.
And then there are the leads. Redgrave is great on her character’s fierce independence and eccentricity – she makes her first entrance with a gun and a brace of rabbits slung over her shoulder – and she can be poignant. But she lacks vocal energy. Earl Jones is worse: he brings tender warmth to the part, but he is often sedentary, swallows many of his lines and is verbally indistinct. This is a big problem: the two characters are famed for their sharp wit. Moreover the electricity in their exchanges is crucial to the play’s great irony: that their “merry war” of words reveals an equality tragically lacking between the sexes elsewhere. Without the light, the dark is not so pronounced.
There are some good, nuanced performances elsewhere, James Garnon as Don Pedro and Kingsley Ben-Adir as Borachio among them. Some great ideas too: the village watch, composed of doddery old men and boy scouts, is hilarious, with Peter Wight very funny as Dogberry. A nice plan then, but like a Dad’s Army manoeuvre, it comes rather unstuck.