There was much ado, indeed, about Mark Rylance’s production of Shakespeare’s sparkling comedy of sparring wits and romance in the aftermath of war. Could the legendary American actor James Earl Jones, at the age of 82, and the grand, veteran thespian talent Vanessa Redgrave, 76, bring the requisite nimbleness and joy to volatile lovers Benedick and Beatrice? Sadly – however admirable the idea that love, like hope, springs eternal and desire never dies might be – the answer is no. There are some brief, gently touching moments. But by and large this is a plodding and clumsily misconceived production that will set few hearts skipping, young or old.
The design, by the talented but erratic Ultz, is a perverse monstrosity. Rylance’s production is heavy on concept. The setting is an English village near a US airbase as the Second World War draws to an end; a major source of inspiration was the Tuskegee Airmen, the first black aviators to fight with the American armed forces. All that should allow for a collision between bucolic British countryside and Yank military machismo, and indeed drill parades of khaki-clad servicemen intersect here with bobbies on bicycles and boy scouts. But it’s baffling that the backdrop to those should be an ugly enclosing oblong of dark wood veneer. Scarcely romantic, it’s also impractical. It offers no handy spot for comic spying or eavesdropping in the key scenes in which Beatrice and Benedick are tricked into revealing their feelings for one another. And, conjuring no atmosphere or sense of space whatsoever, it leaves the actors dangerously exposed. When the performances are a struggle, that’s a very serious problem.
Redgrave, who arrives looking handsome in boots and breeches, has a curiously spaced-out quality. It’s as if she’s not quite present. And while her Beatrice isn’t awful, there’s something rather weary and less than committed about her. That’s probably preferable, though, to Jones’ Benedick, who is almost all effort. There’s an intermittent roguish twinkle in his eye, and that deep, rumbling voice has a sonorous command all of its own. And from time to time, you glimpse a glimmer of complicit warmth between them. But lines are often mumbled, underpowered and occasionally clean forgotten. Rylance’s staging allows him to spend so much time sitting down – and then painfully standing up again – that dynamism is in desperately short supply.
The supporting cast works hard – Lloyd Everitt in particular is an ardent, attractive Claudio – but it often feels as if Jones and Redgrave’s torpor must be infectious. A sprinkling of dance and jazz music ought to liven proceedings up, but it’s all a little too haphazard. Ham-fisted and heavy going.