The production has divided opinion due to Rylance’s casting of James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave as Benedick and Beatrice, respectively. It is, admittedly, unconventional to cast actors aged 82 and 76 as characters who are usually portrayed as youngsters, who reject the idea of marriage before finally getting together. However, if you can see past this, what you have are two fine performances irrespective of age.
We’ve all become used to Shakespeare’s plays being set in different times and places, whether its a modern urban setting or this production’s choice of England circa 1944. There is always something slightly jarring about the Shakespearean language in a different context, but here the setting adds charm and character to the play. The leap to accepting older portrayals of Benedick and Beatrice seems less of a jump when you are already watching Shakespeare in a wildly different context to the one in which it was written.
While there is something slightly incongruous about the age difference between Benedick and Claudio who are meant to be contemporaries, it is the quality of Lloyd Everitt’s performance as Claudio alongside James Earl Jones and his lugubrious delivery that keep the audience hooked.
Vanessa Redgrave’s Beatrice is both charming and funny. She has a seamless stage connection with James Earl Jones, previously seen in the stage adaptation of Driving Miss Daisy, a show that made Rylance think of casting them in these new roles.
Beth Cooke puts in a stand-out performance as Hero, the young lover of Claudio, whose relationship is nearly torn apart by lies and scandal before the couple are reunited in true Shakespearean fashion.
The action is well paced and the cast use the the stage consummately in this most intriguing of renditions of Shakespeare’s comedy. The abiding discussions about this production are bound to be around the casting of James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave but otherwise expect fine performances, excellent comedic deliveries, and a fresh take on a classic.
Much Ado About Nothing is on at The Old Vic, The Cut, London, SE1 8NB until 30 November. 7.30pm nightly plus Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2.30pm.