Much Ado About Nothing at the National Theatre review: Sorely disappointing

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 (Manuel Harland)
(Manuel Harland)

Not even the combined talents of Katherine Parkinson and John Heffernan can breathe life into this flaccid production of Shakespeare’s comedy, a rare misfire by director Simon Godwin.

Parkinson’s withering basilisk gaze and Heffernan’s etiolated air of being about to trump someone’s anecdote, should make them ideal casting for the sparring, reluctant lovers Beatrice and Benedick. But together they have zero chemistry. Neither their animosity nor their ardour rings true.

This is symptomatic of a production that feels like it’s going through the motions, full of forced comic business to make up for its lack of heart. It’s not just the leads that are wasted. Eben Figueiredo, so startlingly good opposite James McAvoy in Cyrano de Bergerac pre- and post-lockdown, is wasted in the role of the duped lover Claudio. Godwin gives Ioanna Kimbook, as Claudio’s spurned bride Hero, a chunk of Shakespeare sonnet 29 to speak, to make her less insipid.

It’s not a bad show, exactly, just ponderous and hollow. This play should zing with witty repartee and with the thrilling, shocking sense that no one can trust their emotions: instead we get gelato, cravats and sunshine.

 (Manuel Harland)
(Manuel Harland)

For some reason, Godwin has set it in a grand Sicilian Riviera hotel in a generically stylish “imagined past”: there’s a swing band, art deco trimmings and costumes that recall Noel Coward plays and early Katherine Hepburn films. Very Wes Anderson. But which war are Benedick and his compatriots returning from? Why are the owners so chummy with the maids? Why a hotel rather than a fish factory, a mine, or a settler colony on Venus, frankly?

The setting confuses the narrative just as Anna Fleischle’s set – a clumsy revolve with noisy sliding doors representing a lobby, a bar, a beach pavilion – dominates the action. At one point, a funeral procession has to blunder around it. One actor nearly fell off. The clunkiness of the staging and the pacing is extraordinary given Godwin is known as a fixer of difficult plays and has been tipped to run the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The pivotal scenes in which friends and family dupe Beatrice and Benedick into loving each other are just as cartoonish, but far less effective, than those in the superior production currently at Shakespeare’s Globe. (Didn’t theatres use to talk to each other to avoid scheduling clashes, by the way?) Those involving the clownish watchmen – hotel security here – are just embarrassing. The jazzy music, at least, is fun. As an entry-level Shakespeare this production is probably fine. But for anyone who wants to see Parkinson, Heffernan or Godwin giving their best work, it’s sorely disappointing.

National Theatre, to September 10, nationaltheatre.org.uk

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