Middle-Aged Lovers Make Much the Biggest Waves; War of Words: Simon Russell Beale as the Swaggering Benedick Opposite Zoe Wanamaker's Vinegary, Cynical Beatrice in Nicholas Hytner's Production of Much Ado about Nothing

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Byline: NICHOLAS DE JONGH

Much Ado About Nothing **** Olivier, National

ZOE WANAMAKER and Simon Russell Beale make a far bigger and better splash inNicholas Hytner's alluring production of Much Ado About Nothing than I daredhope. As Shakespeare's young antagonists, Beatrice and Benedick, whose wittywar of words masks mutual attraction and concludes in an armistice dictated bylove, they are from conventional casting.

Benedick, a soldier-lord and Beatrice, the Governor of Messina's browbeatenniece, are elegant and sophisticated, young and aristocratic. Despite theirhigh talents neither of these actors is a natural recipient of theseadjectives.

Yet John Gielgud and Peggy Ashcroft famously led the way in the Fifties,revealing how these roles could be moulded to suit middle-aged performers or anunheterosexual actor of Gielgud's make-up.

Hytner's production bursts into exuberant, situation comedy. It does not,though, boast a concept or concern itself with the psychological make-up of thesoldiers who unite the romantic and dramatic plotlines. Designer Vicki Mortimerlocates the play in a strange no-man's land.

The costumes mix 16th and 19th century styles. Attractive, white-washedSicilian houses are foregrounded by a revolving stage on which are placedhideous, wooden, vertically slatted screens and a paved walkwayall fresh from Heal's, I guess. A small swimming pool, Mediterranean sunlight,sounds of dogs, chattering townsfolk, dawn chorus birds, music and humansingers complete the vivid Italian picture.

Wanamaker's dazzling, fiftysomething Beatrice appears a vinegary, cynicaloutsider in her own family..

She greets Russell Beale's comically swaggering Benedick, sporting a pointedbeard and pronounced air of condescension, with tart disdain. …