I always leave an outdoor production of Much Ado About Nothing happy: the only question is how happy. In the case of the Public Theater’s Central Park version, directed by Jack O’Brien, the answer is delightfully so. Lily Rabe is not the Beatrice of my Delacorte dreams: that would be Meryl Streep, who would seem too old now were not age in casting Shakespeare flouted as regularly now as other characteristics.
Yet Rabe’s screwball-comedienne voice always commands the attention, and her timing is superb. She is unafraid to lie back and wait until the audience is ready for a zinger, and – when her heart finally opens to Benedick’s charms – she melts physically.
As Benedick, member of Don Pedro’s army stopping off on the way home at the house of Leonato, Governor of Messina, Hamish Linklater attacks his assignment with relish. His line readings can be overemphatic, his interpretation could use shading, and he lacks a kind of heroic charm that has been the currency of my favourite interpreters of the role. Yet Linklater is an audience favourite.
Sporting one of Jane Greenwood’s striking pre-first-world-war, Italian-inflected costumes, Brian Stokes Mitchell, as Don Pedro, makes one wish he’d had a go at Benedick somewhere along the way: we’ve known ever since he essayed Petruchio in a Broadway-hit version of Kiss Me, Kate that Shakespeare flowed in his veins. In Central Park, his snatch of singing is a high point.
The Hero of Ismenia Mendes and Claudio of Jack Cutmore-Scott struggle to make an impression, causing me to understand why Berlioz, in Béatrice et Bénédict, his 1862 opera of the play, retained them merely as the agents who trick the lead couple into matrimony. Balancing Hero and Claudio with Beatrice and Benedick keeps Shakespeare’s version much more carnal: Berlioz’s hero conveys good speech (bene-dict) while the Bard’s offers good something else.
Linklater’s Benedick has a high old time swinging through the lemon tree of John Lee Beatty’s stone-villa-dominated set, and along a long wall that is used creatively. Into his merriment he is unable to conscript Don John, played here with scheming sourness by Pedro Pascal, whose recent turn as the Red Viper in Game of Thrones is slyly referenced by the colour of Don John’s sumptuous cloak. The actors create a true ensemble spirit, resulting in one of the most enjoyable comic evenings in New York at the moment.