There have been Hamlets well beyond their post-grad years (Paul Giamatti to name a recent example), while Sian Phillips was 76 when she played Juliet at the Bristol Old Vic in 2010. No less a figure than Judi Dench that same year returned to A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Rose Theatre, Kingston, nearly 50 years after she first played Titania at Stratford in 1962. The result was a ravishing and rare slice of theatrical history repeated afresh.
On the face of it, then, there’s no particular reason why Vanessa Redgrave (76) and James Earl Jones (82) shouldn’t have a go at that most reluctantly radiant of Shakespearean lovers, Beatrice and Benedict, as they are doing this fall in the Mark Rylance-directed production of Much Ado About Nothing at the Old Vic Theatre – the very stage from which Laurence Olivier announced Vanessa’s birth prior to a 1937 performance of Hamlet featuring her father, Michael Redgrave, as Laertes. But what’s on view through Nov. 30 is a potentially interesting idea – how nice to fly deliberately in the face of our society’s obsession with age – that in conceptual terms sputters far more arthritically than either of its name performers. (Nor do the two leads seem anywhere near as old, by the way, as fellow company member Tim Barlow, as Verges.)
It’s true that Jones spends much of the time center-stage looking longingly at the chair in which he seeks sedentary refuge as much as possible and that neither he nor Redgrave is always audible, however distinctive their storied voices. Jones tends to settle for a low rumble that swallows up the meaning of some of the savviest repartee in the English language, while Redgrave’s vocal timbre is far narrower now than it was during her glory days. Only in the closing passages, following the public humiliation of Beatrice’s cousin, Hero (Beth Cooke), does the actress animate a role for which, 40 or more years ago, she would have seemed ideal. (Those with long enough memories talk in hushed tones of her Rosalind.)
But for the current casting gambit to pay off, one would need a far more sympathetic director than Rylance, whose apparent casualness is bizarre given that this same actor won a 1994 Olivier award for his West End Benedick opposite Janet McTeer. There’s much aimless wandering about Ultz’s preposterously dull set (what was the scenic budget, five quid?), while most of the Brits playing Americans – the conceit finds Jones leading a group of American GIs in Britain during World War II – are far less palatable than either of the clearly struggling leads. (The Claudio and Don John are especially egregious, but given that both men have done fine work elsewhere, I will spare them a shout out.)
The two stars do strike up a rapport of their own after a fashion near the end, not least in one treasurable moment where Redgrave’s mannishly dressed Beatrice – her one sartorial nod to femininity for Hero and Claudio’s wedding is a floral-patterned mistake – puts her hand on the chest of Jones’s Benedick, which he then cups in return. But it isn’t long after that the staging ruins arguably the most beautiful line in any Shakespeare comedy, drowning out Benedick’s achingly openhearted “serve God, love me, and mend” with the pointless rushing into view of Penelope Beaumont’s Ursula. It’s one thing for a Shakespeare staging to be age-blind as this one is, but for it also to be tone-deaf? For that, alas, there is no excuse.