Much Ado About Nothing, National Theatre, review: Blissful revival of a conveyor-belt classic
The hottest night of the year, but, assisted by all-important air-con, the folk at the National are as cool as cucumbers; never mind the climate crisis, the show must go on, and the opening of the theatre’s second big summer divertissement, following hard on the heels of Jack Absolute Flies Again, must face the critics.
The audience deserved the biggest applause just for getting there, by buckled rail and melted roads, but it was worth their effort. There are moments during Simon Godwin’s blissful revival of Much Ado, set in a fancy Sicilian hotel – The Messina – sometime in the Thirties – when the evening seems to deliver all the fun of a foreign hols without the hassle of baggage reclaim at Heathrow.
Starring Katherine Parkinson and John Heffernan as Beatrice and Benedick, Godwin’s production is the third staging of the play I’ve seen this year – following on from the RSC, and the Globe. An embarrassment of Much Ados – but not a tedium. This is the one Shakespearean comedy than never seems to get stale no matter how familiar it gets. How so? Because we never tire of seeing romantic standoffishness defeated, human vanity gulled into declaring itself ready for the necessary sting of heartache.
Shakespeare builds around B&B’s egotistical edifice a dark sub-plot involving Claudio’s over-eager romance and his jealousy-stoked, manipulated jilting of his bride – Hero – at the altar, the most heinous injustice. That perhaps has a contemporary currency in our age of online shaming, but the most modern aspect of the play resides in Beatrice and Benedick’s foible-strewn courtship.
Parkinson, still fondly remembered for The It Crowd – in which she played the lovelorn Jen – was born to give us the most brittle comic heroine on the block. Hers is not an imperious turn, more one of barely suppressed insecurity and batted-away melancholy. Edging around the plush foyer of Anna Fleischle’s lovingly detailed set, with its sun-kissed ochre paint-work and dinky elevators, she launches her barbs across at Heffernan’s easily wounded Benedick – more effete scholar than ram-rod soldier – but looks little less ill at ease than he does.
Heffernan almost seizes the comedy spotlight with his gangly charm, and his ‘gulling’ scene is a superbly handled round of slapstick and dawning emotional sobriety: secreting himself inside, and trundling about in, a little ice-cream trolley, he emerges humiliatingly doused in gelato gloop but resembling a man newly baptised in the ways of love. Parkinson’s equivalent carry-on is more muted, but her ranting on behalf of Ioanna Kimbook’s Hero is as loud as any jazz trumpet heard from the on-stage band, and the violent crack in her voice, upon declaring love for Benedick, has the emotional heft of an earthquake.
The production doesn’t have the same sets appeal that Nicholas Hytner’s did 15 years ago, when Simon Russell Beale and Zoe Wanamaker tumbled in and out of an actual pool. But there are lots of lovely touches all the same – a bubble-bath filled sauna, a “Birth of Venus” tableau evoked in a cluster of feathers, and a fun dance-routine, with call-and-response hey-nonny-nonnys at the climax.
As the rash Claudio, Eben Figueiredo is all wide-boy strut, street emphases, and big Rishi-esque smiles; Wendy Kweh creates a new role, of Hero’s mother (the character of her uncle, Antonio, has been repurposed) with fitfully illuminating results; David Fynn is as bumptiously funny as required as the hapless security man Dogberry.
Is it perfect? No, but it’s very serviceable in a bijou hotel kind of way – and there’ll be another one along, anytime soon; it’s a conveyor-belt classic.
Until Sept 10. Tickets: 020 3989 5455; nationaltheatre.org.uk; NT Live broadcast on 8 Sept