Mark Rylance 'must take blame' for Much Ado blunder at Old Vic
London production is 'hideous'... while James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave are 'punishing' to watch, say the critics
MARK RYLANCE is one of the UK's most revered stage actors. But his direction of a star-studded production of Much Ado About Nothing has drawn some of the most devastating reviews London theatre-goers can remember.
David Benedict in Variety calls the production "dismayingly bungled". The decision to cast Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones - combined ages 158 - as the play's lovers, Beatrice and Benedick, was bold – but the idea "collapses in execution". And that's the least of the problems.
Ultimately, the production – which is set in an English village in 1944 and imagines Benedick as one of the African American GIs stationed nearby - is sunk by a litany of factors. They include "inept blocking, lack of characterisation and, above all, [lack of] drama". In each case, Rylance must take the blame, says Benedict.
"Basic questions like who the characters are and what their place in the story might be are, for the most part, unanswered. The overwhelming thought arising is: 'What on earth did they do in rehearsals'?"
Writing in The Observer, Susannah Clapp, says it's hard to believe that Rylance – "one of the most subtle interpreters of Shakespeare of the past 50 years" – has directed such a botched production.
"It looks hideous," she writes. "It's paced sluggishly. Worst of all, it is for much of the time spoken so indistinctly that it might as well be taking place underwater."
Clapp agrees that the pairing of Redgrave and Jones – "surely the oldest actors ever to tackle Beatrice and Benedick" – isn't the production's key flaw. Their age makes some of the Bard's lines "ridiculous", but in different circumstances such problems could be overcome.
Sadly, the "ugly" set – an enormous brown arch – makes it difficult for the actors to move around and "dwarfs the action". At times it hides actors from sections of the audience, making it hard to understand the action or appreciate the humour.
The Daily Telegraph's Charles Spencer says Rylance asked Redgrave and Jones to appear in Much Ado About Nothing after seeing them perform Driving Miss Daisy in the West End. Watching the two veterans struggle their way through Shakespeare's romantic comedy at the Old Vic, there are times, says Spencer, when you wish "he [Rylance] had kept his big mouth shut".
"I greatly admire both these actors, but having such elderly thesps playing these characters sometimes seems cruel and unusual punishment for both them and the audience," writes Spencer.
Sarah Hemming of the Financial Times praises the "fierce independence and eccentricity" Redgrave brings to her character. But both she and Jones lack "vocal energy" – a big problem for two characters famed for their sharp wit.
Rylance's conception of Much Ado About Nothing as a tale of elderly love is a "nice plan", says Hemming. "But like a Dad's Army manoeuvre, it comes rather unstuck." ·