Once upon a time: Notes from the London stage

William Shakespeare: Much Ado about Nothing, The Old Vic, London (Director: Mark Rylance) / Tori Amos and Samuel Adamson: The Light Princess, National Theatre/Lyttelton Theatre, London (Director: Marianne Elliott)

By Sascha Krieger

Let us start with an apology: Yes, London is one of the, if not the leading theatre capital in Europe, a city full of stages as rich in tradition as they are in variation. There is little not to be found in Britain’s capital, so if the following two reviews are little more than underwhelming, this is more to do with this reviewers poor choice in current productions than with the overall quality of London’s theatre offerings. But alas, truth must be told and it is a matter of fact that not all is well on the London stage and two productions very different in nature must serve as witnesses: one a rather uninspired new take on one of Shakespeare’s more popular comedies, the other a musical that might not be remembered – or running, for that matter – for very long.

The Old Vic, since it has been revived under the artistic directorship of Kevin Spacey, starting in 2004, has been home to several star-studded productions in the past – Much Ado about Nothing is no different. What is unusual is the casting: the production focuses around Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones, 76 and 82 years old, respectively, who are playing the warring couple Beatrice and Benedick. An interesting choice that would have offered the possibility of re-envisioning this dark and bitter comedy as a tale about old age, the possibilities and impossibilities of love, social prejudice and conventions and the right to have a life of one’s own – at any age. Mark Rylance, admittedly rather more accomplished as an actor than as a director to date, seems to focus on the age theme: on the other end of the spectrum, the watchmen have been re-invented as boy scouts and are played by children. Rylance also sets his production in 1944’s Britain – Leonato’s clan is turned into British gentry while Don Pedro and his following are American soldiers taking a break from the war. In addition, the “Americans” are all played by African-American actors with the notable exception of Pedro himself who is white.

The setup therefore provides plenty of room for interpretation, for contemporary relevance, issues of gender roles, ageism, power structures or racism. And what does the production make of all this? Next to nothing, unfortunately. In his programme notes, Rylance explains that he just wanted to work with Jones and Redgrave and that the American theme was introduced to allow for a more natural speaking style, particularly of the overseas actors. So most of the apparent issues quickly disappear while the company embarks on a largely uninspired and dreary as well as rather slow-paced walk through Shakespeare’s text. Most surprisingly, the production is hardly funny, the fast-paced and often sharp humour rarely pops up at all. Peter Wight’s satirical and hilarious portrayal of Dobgerry as a stumbling policeman is a notable exception on a night, during which there are no sparks flying – most remarkably in the case of Beatrice and Benedick. Jones is a world-weary soldier who delivers his lines in a rather tired way while Redgrave at least shows some aggressive spirit, even though her constant irony does become somewhat stale later on. The battle of wits does not take place, there is neither friction nor chemistry between the stars.

Small highlights are Danny Lee Wynter’s melancholical Don John who at least suggests the play’s key topic of how we’re driven by conventions and often-told tales, by appearances and roles we assume. Every story needs a villain, Wynter proclaims, so he will play that role. Another exception is Michael Elwyn who plays Leonato: his ferocious attack on his seemingly disgraced daughter momentarily cuts through the pleasant lull of the evening. The quickness with which love turns into deadly hatred, the easiness with which appearances drive people’s attitude and actions, the way in which love is revealed to be an artificially constructed entity throughout, have long been the most disturbing features of this only apparently light comedy. Elwyn shows some of this dark underbelly of civilization, this dark side of social conventions but it hardly registers. Soon the caricaturesque strut of James Garnon’s Pedro, the pleasant quarrelling of Jones and Redgrave and the at times ridiculously heavy-handed staging take over. In the end, it leaves the audience with little more than nothing – and there isn’t even that much ado.

A few minutes away, on the National Theatre’s Lyttelton stage, Tori Amos has staged her first musical, aided by co-writer Samuel Adamson. Adapting a Victorian fairy tale, The Light Princess tells the story of two warring kingdoms and their heirs both of whom lose their mother at an early age. One, a prince, becomes morose and solemn, the other, a princess, literally loses her footing and starts floating around, taking everything lightly. Eventually, love strikes and in the end, one learns to smile and the other rediscovers gravity. In the mix also are a kind and a tyrannical king, heavy water symbolism and some ruminations about gender roles. Rosalie Craig – with her long curly read hair more than a little reminiscent of the show’s author – is brilliant as the escapist, selfish, identity-denying Althea, Clive Rowe her convincing father otherwise the acting is unspectacular. Especially Nick Hendrick’s prince Digby disappoints: he is little more than a pretty face but otherwise quite uninteresting.

Rae Smith’s stage design is a nice mixture of fairy-tale imagination and strongly suggestive colour schemes, strengthened with some cute puppetry and intriguing silhouette-style animation, while Amos’ music is surprisingly bland, way too word-dominated and mostly lacking of this fragile poeticism, that vulnerable strangeness that makes much of her work almost magical. Here, there is no magic, there are no undertones, the story is told in a simplistic and straightforward way while the music opens no perspective and merely illustrates. The magic and fascination we associate with fairy tales is entirely missing, too much does the show concentrate on the beauty of its surface and the ingenious ways designed to keep Craig afloat. The imagination of the audience is not stirred for one moment, rather they are led to consume something as pleasant as it is light and forgettable. As one steps out into the brisk autumn night along the River Thames, forgetfulness begins to set in. It is a pleasant feeling.

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