Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Wake me up before you nonny-nonny

Watching David Tennant and Catherine Tate in a filmed performance of Much Ado About Nothing downloaded to my computer is a bit like the live-stream videos of the Sunday services at my mother's church. Now there's something I never thought I'd be saying.

See, last week word came from DT fan sources that last summer's West End production of MAAN at Wyndham's Theatre would be available on DVD come February. Almost immediately, seemed to back-pedal, announcing it wasn't happening just yet. Then word came through Doctor Who channels that this production is available now for downloading. You have to install something called Digital Theatre (DT - nice symmetry, wot?), and the downloading process takes more than four hours. Mind you, my computer is a bit of a dinosaur -- the programmes on it are almost two years old -- so that may be at the root of what ensued.

When I finally completed all this and settled down to watch, I found the images beautifully defined -- when the actors don't move much. Unfortunately, this production involves plenty of physical comedy, a revolving stage, and gyrating to eighties-style pop. When this happens, the images tend to freeze and jerk, and often the speech isn't quite synchronized to the moving lips. As I said, it's rather like the live stream of Unitarian church services in Victoria, which tends to freeze every time the camera pans or the congregation rises to sing a hymn. When the actors are still, they are beautifully visible, though; if you want to feast your eyes on Tennant's stubble and Tate's mole, you can do so. The audio, likewise, is crystal clear.

Anyway, it took me the first half hour to get over the distraction of the flashing and freezing and get into the story.

I've probably seen more productions of Much Ado About Nothing than any other Shakespeare play, although I've never sat down and done a tabulation. It is the one play I've seen at Stratford-upon-Avon (set in the British Raj with a line of Indian guards bellowing: "Stap in the niem of the Prince!"). It is a fine play, a rollicking play, but I actually have more difficulty with it than I do with The Taming of the Shrew or even The Merchant of Venice. This is because I find it hard to concentrate on the humour when, like Beatrice, I want to kill Claudio.

I wrote about a Company of Fools production of MAAN a couple of years ago which dealt with the problem of the Hero-and-Claudio plot by making both wronged Hero and cloddish, self-righteous Claudio attractive airheads. It worked very well. After all, why else would they end up married at the end of the play after Claudio has shamed Hero at their first attempted wedding on the flimsiest of evidence, unless both parties were not all that bright?

Tennant and Tate's version puts heavy emphasis on the rage of the wronged family: the reactions of Beatrice, Leonato, Ursula, and finally, Benedict to Claudio's (and the Prince's) appalling behaviour and lack of remorse. There still remains the problem of restoring the Prince and Claudio back to the status of "good guys", so we get to see Claudio go into paroxysms of grief in a vigil for the supposedly dead Hero with the aid of a bottle of whiskey, a ghetto-blaster and a pistol. He doesn't use the latter because he catches a brief glimpse of Hero whom he presumably mistakes for a ghost before the Prince arrives to escort him to his wedding to Hero's "cousin" (who turns out to be Hero herself, of course). It still doesn't quite work, but it's a nice try.

Things I liked about the production:

1) The neat conceit of paralleling Hero in this eighties-flavoured show with the late Diana, Princess of Wales, right down to her wedding dress. Too bad they didn't find a jug-eared actor to play Claudio.

2) The predicaments in which Benedict and Beatrice find themselves as they eavesdrop on their friends' staged conversations about their passion for each other. Benedict gets tangled up with cans of paint, and Beatrice is hoisted aloft by the seat of her pants (although the harness is clearly visible).

3) The serious scenes following Hero's shaming at her own wedding. I found myself, despite the technical distractions of this download, getting totally absorbed in events and believed, for the first time, that there was indeed a deep connection between Benedict and Beatrice. There was a truth there that simply hadn't been in the comedy which, coming from performances by Tennant and Tate, surprises me. Maybe they did too good a job of eighties shallow.

4) Elliot Levey's portrayal of the villainous Don John. This is a fiendishly difficult role to pull off because Don John is supposed to be a thoroughly unlikeable chap. He's shown here as being rather socially inept and it's clear that his princely brother Don Pedro loathes him. This rescues him from the second dimension and makes his actions more understandable.

On the downside, the director and Catherine Tate evidently decided to give Beatrice an awkward side. When Don Pedro suggests marriage, and when Benedict declares himself to her, Tate dissolves into odd vocalizations and hyperventilation. I can see what they were aiming for, but I found it more grating than humanizing and it rather spoiled my favourite line in the play (and possibly in all of Shakespeare), when Don Pedro comments that she was born in a merry hour and she replies: No, sure, my lord, my mother cried; but then there was a star danced, and under that was I born. In a flash of lyrical poignancy, we get the measure of Beatrice, but I think it was lost here.

I also didn't care much for Tennant's and Tate's more obvious playing to the audience. I'm sure it was far more amusing for those actually there, but it leaves us poor schmucks who couldn't come up with the airfare to London out in the cold.

All in all? It's good fun, but I feel I'm missing a lot due to the technical difficulties of this download and I really hope this is released to DVD soon.

1 comment:

Lisa Rullsenberg said...

It is not a perfect production, but I think in recording in front of an audience the distance is heightened between the audience in the theatre and the audience in front of their hapless computer screen (technology dates and SLLLOOOOWWWS very easily).

Boo for technology.