Thursday, May 19, 2011

"There's a Skirmish of Wit Between Them": A Review of Much Ado About Nothing with David Tennant and Catherine Tate

Last week I went and saw Hamlet, one of my favorite plays and one I have seen countless times, at the Globe in London.  As we were standing there in the yard I read in the program (over someone's shoulder) that the episode of Doctor Who where they meet Shakespeare was partially filmed there.  That was a little too much for me and I got a bit swoony.   Yes, that is precisely the kind of geek I am.   When a friend mentioned she had bought tickets to see David Tennant and Catherine Tate in Much Ado About Nothing I knew I would have to go.  I found a ticket, but it was £75.  That's about $115.  My hesitation didn't last very long and I bought the ticket for last night's performance at the Wyndham Theatre in the West End.  I might not be able to eat lunch for the next couple of weeks, but it was definitely worth it.  

As a Humanities scholar and a British television fangirl, it really is a wonderful thing when worlds collide, when the Doctor met Shakespeare and when last night Shakespeare met David Tennant and Catherine Tate.   Much Ado About Nothing is my favorite Shakespeare comedy.  I find the Kenneth Branagh film, with the lovely Emma Thompson,  endlessly watchable and amusing.  I've also read the play a few times, but this was the first time I've seen it performed live. It's probably ruined me for future versions of the play.

On top of all of the obvious skill in the actors and beauty in Shakespeare's words, the staging of the play was a sheer delight.  It took place in Gibraltar in the 1980s, in a hot sundrenched villa.  The first appearance of Tennant is in a white Royal Navy  officer's uniform driving on stage in a little gocart, wearing aviator sunglasses and speaking with his native Scottish brogue.  Be still my beating heart.   That's when the swooning began.  In the center of the rotating stage were 4 pillars, and this created a really engaging dynamic to the scene where Benedick's friends trick him into thinking Beatrice is in love with him.  On top of the moving stage add Tennant's brilliant physical comedy, and the scene becomes the most hilarious and delightful moments of the whole play. Darting between the pillars Tennant is wearing (very tight) cutoff jean shorts and a Super Man t-shirt (thank you 1980s), and as he hears the news of Beatrice's love he accidently puts his hand in a pan of paint, which in his awe and excitement (and the consistently rotating stage) proceeds to find its way onto his face, in his hair, and all over those cutoffs.  And Shakespeare! Just thinking of his lines now I can't stop laughing.  Tennant and Shakespeare. What a beautiful marriage. 

As much as this scene made me swoon and cry with laughter, the play wasn't all giggles.  The scene where Beatrice asks Benedick to kill Claudio, his young friend who has shamed her cousin, was an emotional rollercoster.  Here Benedick reveals his love for Beatrice, and she for him, and the two are giddy, and yet this happens on the cusp of the most traumatic and heart-wrenching moment of the play when Claudio mistakenly denounces Hero at the altar as an unfaithful hussy.  He destroys her reputation and violently breaks her heart.  The giddiness of Benedick and Beatrice's love seems inappropriate and yet so oddly relieving.   I love the way Tate played Beatrice.  So composed and certain of herself, but unable to contain small explosions of girlish excitement at hearing Benedick's confession of love.  Because of this she brought a huge laugh from the audience when Benedick asks her what she would have him do to prove his love and she responds with "Kill Claudio."  Tennant immediately regained control and the gravity of her words sunk in, both in him and the audience.   I wanted to say that Tate's performance in this scene was more comic and lighthearted because of this moment, but it certainly was not.  She is in pain, she recognizes as a woman that she cannot herself confront Claudio, and asks the man who is making her heart leap in her chest to do it for her.  There's love there, yes, and all of the excitement and joy that comes with newly reveled love, but there is also real, deeply felt pain at the exact same moment, and Tennant and Tate swirled around in these conflicting emotions with a skill that  made me melt in my seat.

A friend asked me how I felt afterwards and the only response I could think of was that this play destroyed me.   Yes, it delighted me, but the combination of delight and sadness and joy and Tennant and Shakespeare and Tate and the 1980s and cutoffs and Royal Navy uniforms basically destroyed me.  And I desperately needed it.  

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