June 19, 2011

Much Ado @ Wyndham's Theatre

I want to make clear - I have NOT seen Much Ado about Nothing at Wyndham's Theatre, starring Catherine Tate and David Tennant. Quite simply, I couldn't afford it.

I was also sceptical about what appeared to be a particularly cynical production aimed at the West End. The two most popular stars of the most popular light entertainment show on television, reunited for a one-off special? My cynicism was reduced when I heard that the ever-wonderful Josie Rourke was directing; and I do believe that Tate and Tennant genuinely wanted to work together - there does seem to be something more than pound signs in a producer's eyes behind this production.

The reason I'm posting now is that I've been fascinated by the responses, which seem to run a clear divide between academic and popular. The critiques I've heard from some of my most trusted theatregoing contacts and academics have been resoundingly negative - Tate is awful, the rest of the production is half-baked, it lacks imagination etc. The responses (primarily on Facebook) from my non-specialist friends, however, say that it's wonderful - Tate and Tennant sparkle, the production looks fantastic, it's laugh-out-loud funny.

So, my two questions: 1) What did people who've seen it think of it? and 2) what do we think about this kind of production? Is the fact that it's working for new audiences, even if there may be suspicion of people being blinded by celebrity, enough? Do we as academics need to take that into account as part of our critique? If we're the only person still sitting while everyone else gives a standing ovation, is everyone else wrong, or is there something we should be learning from them about pure enjoyment? Or does our critical objectivity matter more than a mass response?

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  1. Duncan

    1) Tennant spent the entire performance crowdsurfing on an updraft of uncritical adulation wafting towards him from the stalls. Tate grimaced and gurned like she was recording a television sketch. The rest of the cast went through the motions.

    2) People new to the theatre and new to Shakespeare might have felt it worthy of a standing ovation, but that is like taking someone out of a region stricken by famine, depositing them in a chips and beans cafe and watching them devour whatever is placed in front of them. The sight provokes pity and relief, but isn’t taken to be a ringing endorsement that the food is of the highest quality.

    It could be that this Much Ado will give some of them a taste for more Shakespeare, in which case they will be delighted to discover that is possible to see much better productions for much less money. Alternatively, the same people might be disappointed to discover that not every production of Much Ado stages Borachio shagging Margaret with graphic realism on the floor of a nightclub.

    19 Jun 2011, 20:01

  2. KatJP

    Well said Duncan.

    From what I witnessed I doubt many people had any intention of developing “a taste for Shakespeare”. Overheard at the bar during the inteval:
    “I can’t understand a word of it but isn’t David fit”,
    “I nearly fell asleep when he wasn’t on stage for that long bit”,
    “I could see right up his skirt from my seat”,
    “I wish they’d just speak English”.

    20 Jun 2011, 09:30

  3. Paul

    Peter, your questions are interesting but I have a few more:
    - Are the negative opinions of your academic friends more valid than the prositive opinions of your non academic friends? or vice versa? Is there a way to objectively decide that? In the end, don’t we side with the criticism of the group of people we want to belong to, and has that anything to do with the object of the criticism?

    - many of the negatve reviews, as the two comments above, revealed a contempt for the audience. Can you like the production if you feel contempt for the audience? How deep rooted is that contempt? Don’t we remember only the pieces of information that confirm our preconceptions? (don’t answer that, yes we do).

    - your first reaction to the production was that it was a cynical exercise (in fact, there is very little evidence that it’s a cynical exercise. Commercial yes, cynical no, and those two things are not the same, and there is another massive discussion about commercial Shakespeare). If most of your academic friends felt the same – as I suspect they did – are they in the right frame of mind to enjoy this production?

    I for one loved it. It’s not perfect but it was fresh and fun and every decision around the play was a legitimate decision.

    And I don’t believe you should like something because the rest of the audience does, but also I don’t think you should feel smug if you don’t. And frankly I don’t give two hoots if new audiences come to Shakespeare (how patronising is that?). We have decided that Shakespeare is good for people (like brocolli) and the more we say that, the more audiences run away. (And I like brocolli, as I like Shakespeare). New audiences will come to Shakepseare if they think there is something for them, and academics don’t get to decide what that something should be.

    And to conclude, as much as there is uncritical positive reactions, there is uncritical negative reactions, and in many ways, this production has seen both. I suspect that if this production was exactly the same, but the leads were not the massive stars they are and it was in the West End, the comments would be very different.

    20 Jun 2011, 15:02

  4. Paul

    Apologies for spelling and other mistakes. I was in a hurry, I can’t edit and we will all have to live with them.

    20 Jun 2011, 15:14

  5. Thanks Duncan, KatJP and Paul for kicking off the conversation with some very different takes!

    Duncan: References to coasting and going through the motions – so is your impression that this production was lazy BECAUSE of its celebrity? Also, one of the things which intrigues me about this production is that it DOESN’T sound like a particularly conservative West End production (unlike, say the Donmar West End’s Twelfth Night with Jacobi) – couldn’t it be a good thing that audiences are coming to see something which has a bit more of an edge and, indeed, more rutting?

    KatJ: There’s an interesting point in those overheard comments that audiences were struggling to understand. Was it your impression that this was a fault of the production, was it unclear? Or do you think the audience members you heard were specifically going to look at Tennant and had no interest in listening?

    Paul: Really? Do you think one always sides with one’s own particular demographic? I have to say, I tend to be more often in violent contestation with my academic colleagues than in agreement, in part because I think academics lose sight of the importance of productions aimed at non-specialists or productions put on for the sake of entertainment rather than scholarship (God forbid!). I do stand by my original feeling that, when I first heard the announcement, I thought it sounded cynical. The distinction I make is that both high art and popular entertainment can be “commercial” in the sense of expected to do financially well and appeal broadly; but I do think producer-assembled theatre designed with eyes on wallets with an artistic rationale patched on later is quite cynical. As I said, though, once I heard more about the production I was happy to recant on that. If I have any resentment towards the production, it’s that it was priced too highly for me to see it – which DOES seem a shame, especially when you’re pricing out a lot of the demographic who would be most drawn to the theatre by the promise of Tate and Tennant.

    You make a lot of valid points, which I believe are relevant,so thanks for taking the time! I take as read on this blog that everyone should make up their own minds about a production, while recognising that everyone will of course bring their own particular set of preferences to a performance. There’s nothing more boring than everyone saying the same thing about a show! The question which I find more important is – if we find our own opinion very strongly out of step with everyone else’s, how do we qualify and use that? For my part, I’m a big believer in sticking to my guns, but I am always intrigued to find out what other people saw in something that I missed, or vice versa. As I said, many of my friends loved the production and are defending it passionately (and it’s not a neat academic/non-academic split by any means) – which is why I thought this would be an interesting place to get some different opinions.

    20 Jun 2011, 17:55

  6. Duncan

    The non-celeb cast went through the motions simply because they knew that they were not the reason that people had bought tickets. This was not an ensemble with a star lead. It was a celebrity vehicle. Don John and Hero just had to learn their lines and not bump into the furniture.

    A telling sign is the arrangement of the entries in the first scene. Around l.90 there is an entry for Don Pedro’s entire party including Benedick. In this production Tennant’s Benedick gets a separate, late entry just before his first lines that sees him race onstage in a golf cart sounding its horn. The text is deliberately rearranged to give him his own entry as befits his star status. On the night I saw the production, he entered on the cart, did his part of the scene and then exited on the cart. At this point the audience gave him a long round of applause: simply for having turned up, for having done his scene and then exiting without destroying the set. An audience prepared to applaud something as basic as that is going to be easily pleased. That’s what this production was relying upon. And that is the main problem I have with it. Trading on celebrity meant that the production didn’t have to try very hard.

    The production was an atypical Shakespeare production but deeply conservative in terms of fitting into what people expect from a West End show. The director knew what people would expect from a production playing across the street from Leicester Square and delivered on those expectations. Assessing it on a conservative/radical scale is not really appropriate.

    I’m all in favour of Shakespeare being fresh and exciting. Last year the Globe gave us a wonderful 1/2 Henry IV with some quite famous actors in the lead roles, and people could see some fantastic performances and laugh-out-loud comedy for just a fiver.

    Charging people up to £85 to see Catherine Tate’s Beatrice is probably more deeply contemptuous of the audience that any opinion I could ever express.

    Compare this production with Tamsin Greig’s version for the RSC. That was also a form of celebrity casting, given that she was known almost exclusively for her television work and had little or no stage experience. Yet her Beatrice won her critical acclaim and a Laurence Olivier award. It worked because she approached the project with fear and awe and didn’t consider herself bigger than the play. I wish I could say the same for Tennant and Tate.

    20 Jun 2011, 19:57

  7. Paul

    Responding to Duncan’s comments, I completely disagree that the production is lazy & it’s a celebrity vehicle. In fact, I was surprised how big an impressions the other actors were making: throughout the performance I kept thinking I couldn’t remember Don Pedro’s role being so big, because Adam James was making a fantastic impression as a person having an easy authority over others, very in control of every scene he is in, and he has a nice tender chemistry with Claudio. Leonato was impressive and very genuine in his (macho) rage, which raised a lot of interesting points about this very male dominated society. Claudio and Hero have an innocence that makes sense of their misguided choices and reactions. Dogberry is actually funny, not only that, his comedy brings his character in the fore.

    The introduction (or reinstatememt) of Leonato’s wife gives punch to many lines. If Beatrice is the woman who stood up to this male dominated environment, Imogen is the one who didn’t, but she is no fool and she knows exactly what’s happening and who is to blame.

    Benedick’s gulling scene is very funny, not only because of David Tennant, but because Don Pedro, Leonato and Claudio delight in each other’s company and in the (good natured) game they are playing. What makes it special is that you are torn trying to watch everyone because everyone is doing something a little bit special. Perfectly choreographed around each other’s character.

    As for Benedick’s entrance, it’s a very legitimate choice to separate him from the others (he is both with them and apart throughout the play, and when things matter, he completely seperates himself from them, and that’s a massive moral stand). I found Benedick’s exit from his first scene, him juggling the lines, his semi indignation and the golf cart, and we, as an audience, never knowing whether he pays enough attention to the things he should be paying attention, a very fun moment.

    This is only a small sample of things I could say about the production, and none of them has anything to do with the stars.

    Re comments overheard, I could add my experience, that people around me were saying that the production makes the language come alive. Does it matter? I am sure someone else at the same auditorium was only thinking that David Tennant is fit. You can’t regulate people’s thoughts either way.

    20 Jun 2011, 21:56

  8. I’m very much enjoying reading about two very different productions :-) . Paul – many thanks for your comments, these are the kinds of insight which are largely missing from the mainstream reviews and are very valuable to hear here. I noted that Paul Taylor in the Independent also remarked on the introduction of Imogen, but he was far less impressed than you; nonetheless, from an academic point of view, it’s very interesting to reflect on what the presence of this ghost character might offer.

    There’s an interesting subsidiary question here which is – does it matter if a production DOES show awareness of its own celebrity? Now, I’d be more ambivalent if the RSC, with its repeated emphasis on ensemble, was doing this, but for a West End production which undeniably advertised itself on the recognisability of its leads – is there any reason why a production shouldn’t play with its lead figures, play to the metatheatrical awareness of the actors’ impact? Duncan: for you this certainly seems to be an irritation, and one which you felt acted to the detriment of the production. Paul: you’re obviously making a deliberate point about what you found in the other characters, but did you have an awareness of the production separating out Tate and Tennant for these reasons, or was it all artistically coherent?

    On the “comments overheard” note – I agree with Paul that it doesn’t matter, and it certainly can’t be taken to stand for a representative sample of the theatregoing experience. It is interesting as anecdotal information though; I’m interested in the dynamics among audiences and how – consciously or subconsciously – we’re affected by the responses of those around us.

    20 Jun 2011, 22:12

  9. Paul

    For me, the production was artistically coherent, and found no indications of compromises. Not liking the approach is one thing, assigning motives to it is much more complicated. Also, there are no indications that the stars are separate from the rest of the group. (A theatre performance is special because there are a number of practical choices that contribute to the end result: for instance, in this production they don’t use stage hands for set changes, everything is done by the actors – in a very efficient pacy way. The stars are as much part of it as the rest. Even if most of the people in the audience won’t consciously notice, it passes a message).

    On the other hand, a production showing some awareness of its stars relationship with the audience doesn’t contradict a coherent artsitic vision. In almost every way, it’s as any other element that the actor brings to the table (their talent, experience, physicality), what you do with it is what matters (you can ignore that relationship but that’s as much of a choice as anything else). In the costume party, David Tennant is wearing bright red lipstick, fake boobs and an abusrdly short skirt that leaves very little to the imagination. This costume is a legitimate choice for Benedick, it’s very funny (especially because Tennant / Benedick wears it with the physicality of a man that has no idea how to wear a skirt, and because later in the scene it leads to a nice little moment when Benedick stands in perfect military position while wearing the mini skirt). But there is the addditional frisson of David Tennant (who is a pin up, girls squeeing over him etc) wearing that costume. He sends himself up and the audience is completely capable of enjoying that moment in two levels, it doesn’t take anything from the play. Shakespeare is not avant guarde. Am I to believe that Shakespeare was dour tortured artist that never played with the audience’s perceptions when staging his own plays?

    Catherine Tate has one brief moment reminiscent of her previous characters, but it works perfectly well in context. She has another moment that I am not very happy about, but that has nothing to do with her stardom (I just don’t think it works). When it comes to her established relationship with the audience, I think she is less aware / uses it less, which also means she is less confident or playful on stage. In this case, I say this as a minor critiscism.

    21 Jun 2011, 13:53

  10. Paul – and to add to your second paragraph, this is obviously built in to the plays themselves, in roles written specifically for “celebrity” actors such as Burbage and Kempe. Robert Weimann writes interestingly about the difference between “locus” and “plateau”, arguing that actors/characters always simultaneously inhabit the fictive world of the play and the phenomenological world of the auditorium; one cannot simply ignore the resonances actors bring to it. The question for modern audiences is whether this is felt to detract from, sit alongside and independent of, or productively contribute to the storytelling – for you it sounds like the latter?

    21 Jun 2011, 14:01

  11. Steve P

    I saw this production last Friday. It has a highly commercial flavour, from the exorbitant ticket prices to the publicity images (Tennant’s face. Tate’s face. The title.). The design seems to have been predicated on the idea that audiences who’ve paid upwards of £50 a ticket will want to see their money on stage, so the revolving set revolves a lot, they’ve crammed in every eighties nostalgia artefact you’d care to think of, there’s a big cast, and the show concludes with a Wham-inspired song-and-dance number. As Duncan mentioned above, David Tennant’s first entrance, and his first exit, are both designed to maximise the applause from the DT-devotees.

    But I’m not sure any of this equates to artistic bankruptcy. Rather, this is a show that knows its audience and has tailored itself accordingly. Tennant would get a round of applause upon his entrance, however it were staged – so the production very sensibly caters for that. Tennant does indeed surf the waves of the crowd’s adulation, but he does it in such a way that it creates a very warm, two-way rapport between actor and audience (when I saw it, the audience cheered the line “I will be horribly in love with her”; Tennant then responded non-verbally to at least four or five separate audience reactions – raised hands for silence, raised eyebrows, mock consternation, etc.). Tate, meanwhile, plays upon her popular persona to interesting effect: I’ve never seen Beatrice’s rejection of Don Pedro’s marriage offer played with such comic awkwardness, being at once both touching and very, very funny.

    Yes, the storytelling is quite literal at points – but again, I think this is a case of a production which knows its audience. Doctor Who fans who haven’t seen a Shakespearean production since they were at school might need a helping hand (and let’s not forget that DT and CT have a lot of fans who are still at school – a few of them were in evidence at the Wyndham’s too). It’s also very light-hearted, and it ignores some of the play’s darker undertones – but again, you direct a production according to its audience, and at these prices, most audience members are there for a party, not introspection. (Even I was there for my girlfriend’s 30th, rather than in my capacity as a Shakespearean academic – like you, Pete, I think I’d have given it a miss on the basis of the price alone had it not been a special occasion.)

    Having said all this, there were bits that didn’t work for me. Hero, Claudio, Don John and many of the other roles were under-developed – this production was clearly about the two leads (though Don Pedro and Dogberry were great). The audience’s willingness to laugh at David Tennant and Catherine Tate didn’t always extend to Dogberry and the clowns, and much of the wordplay seemed to go largely unnoticed. There’s a heavy-handed attempt to explain Hero’s willingness to forgive Claudio (she sees him contemplating suicide as he gets drunk listening to some Shakespearean heavy metal, and prevents him from blowing his brains out), and this melodramatic plot twist was (quite rightly) met with sniggers from audience members who were determined to have an unproblematically good time. Finally, Beatrice’s gulling outdoes Benedick’s in outrageous slapstick, but it isn’t as funny. (Having directed the play for the Pantaloons, I know how difficult this scene is: the play’s momentum demands that this scene exceeds the previous one, but there isn’t as much comic material to work with. It’s in verse, Hero gets nearly all the dialogue, and Beatrice has no asides.)

    So in short – yes, this was relatively unproblematic popular entertainment, much like Doctor Who itself. One might see it as a neglected opportunity to introduce greater subtlety, intelligence, political commitment, etc. to a popular audience, but honestly, I think they got the balance more-or-less right – the mere circumstances of the play’s production mean that this is closer to ‘Live at the Apollo’ than it is to the RSC.

    27 Jun 2011, 19:36

  12. Julie

    I agree with Steve’s summary. I think that the production is very aware of its audience and works for me in that context. I have blogged about the production mid run and there is also a link in it to my thoughts about the very first performance.


    05 Jul 2011, 19:00

  13. Thanks Julie, great stuff!

    06 Jul 2011, 01:35

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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.

The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.

Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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