Only as Old as You Feel: Inspired Casting Makes for a Joyfully Cynical Take on the Bard's Comedy
Billen, Andrew, New Statesman (1996)
Much Ado About Nothing
Olivier Theatre, London SE1
The morning before I saw Nicholas Hytner's joyful production of Shakespeare's comedy I happened to be interviewing Felicity Kendal, who played Beatrice in Elijah Moshinsky's 1989 version. Beatrice is a cousin to Hero, one of the playwright's still-to-be deflowered maids, so she may be a little older than her, but not so very much so. Yet Kendal was 43 when she played her. And Alan Bates, as her sparring partner Benedick, would have made, at 55, an extremely old "young lord of Padua". What, I asked Kendal, did Bates do about Benedick's famous line "The world must be peopled"? "Say it very quickly, I should think," she replied.
On paper, the National's new production has an even more acute age problem with its merrily warring Benedick and Beatrice. Simon Russell Beale is 47, while Zoe Wanamaker is 58, an age that would truly take Beatrice down to the IVF clinic if her reluctant beau were in earnest about "peopling". But Beale does not gabble the line--he gets a laugh out of it. And his casting, as is Wanamaker's, proves to be inspired.
It would have been, whatever the two actors' ages. Beale has successfully played Hamlet and Uncle Vanya, but his short, ramshackle body and large plastic face are built for comedy. Wanamaker, although a fine Shakespearean actress, is loved for her sitcom My Family. Both bring tremendous comedic physicality to the stage. Beale, eavesdropping on the plotters as they fool him into believing Beatrice is in love with him, tries to hide his substantial torso behind a very thin post (a visual metaphor for how we often fool ourselves that we have hidden our true selves from others). Wanamaker, in her parallel scene, prowls felinely behind a wall.
But the actors' maturity makes sense of their characters' cynicism; both have clearly been to too many parties and had their handbags stolen too many times--specifically by each other in a previous romance. In a play where everyone behaves very foolishly, their scepticism comes close to earned wisdom, and allows them to treat even their own prejudices with caution.
For Claudio, Hero's fiance, love is a binary, on-off matter. Not for Beatrice or Benedick, who have to think themselves into it. As Beatrice responds when he declares himself to her: "I confess nothing, nor I deny nothing. …