Much Ado About Nothing
If there was ever a justification for having a National Theatre, this is it.
When Nicholas Hytner announced that he would direct Simon Russell Beale and Zoë Wanamaker in Much Ado, the sense of anticipation that he raised was wholly unreasonable. Unless this was the year's best Shakespeare, if not its finest moment, aficionados would be disappointed.
Remarkably, even with that build up, the production exceeds expectations, delighting from start to finish, throughout three of the most enjoyable hours that this critic has spent in a theatre.
Vicki Mortimer sensibly chooses a simple design, a sunny, southern villa with a large revolve that spins regularly. There are also a couple of hidden surprises to enhance the fun.
In this setting, Oliver Ford Davies as old Leonato has two young women to care for and marry off. His beautiful, nubile daughter Hero, played by Susannah Fielding who was still at drama school at the beginning of the year, is purity personified so should not be a problem, especially when the victorious army comes to town.
Her cousin, in this case a considerably older, often tipsy spinster, is another matter. Miss Wanamaker ensures that Beatrice is sour and venomous when she speaks, especially of Benedick, a kindred spirit, if only each would stop baiting the other for even a moment.
In no time, Hero has enchanted Claudio (Daniel Hawksford), an earnest young warrior who would melt any girl's heart.
In Shakespeare, even the comedies, the path of true love will lose itself in byways. In this case, the marvellously villainous Andrew Woodall as the unsmiling bastard Don John schemes to turn not only Claudio but even her father against lovely Hero, despite an impassioned speech from Miss Fielding that should have won over the hardest heart.
Before that though, there is the hilarious anti-wooing of the two Bs, bettered by possibly the funniest scenes of the stage year, as each is gulled into believing that the other secretly loves them. Ford Davies is a marvel in this joshing as he plays the bad actor, something that cannot have been easy.
Hytner produces a stroke of genius to place this in a garden complete with a squared pond, which eventually allows the two unwilling lovers symbolically and separately to dive head first into deep water and thence love. Russell Beale, exceptional as always, hits his peak at this point, secreting himself daintily, miming meaningfully and then declaring his love while dripping from head to toe.
Miss Wanamaker, who is his match in all senses, then follows suit, having been led on by Hero and her team. It is perhaps appropriately in church that they finally succumb, after warily then making love in the old, poetic sense.
This might have made a pretty ending for most playwrights but Shakespeare had other ideas, enabling Mark Addy and Trevor Peacock to form a comic double act as dim watchmen, Dogberry and a particularly funny Verges. Without them, the Keystone Cops might never have existed and two couples not been happily married but inevitably all comes right in the end.
Helped by two of the best and most sensitive actors around at the head of a great cast all of whom speak well, Hytner's direction is impeccable. In particular, he makes Shakespeare in period costume fresh and wholly accessible, which renders this an ideal opportunity to introduce youngsters to the bard and hook them for life.
The lucky opening night audience went wild and so will you, if you book early enough or queue. Ewan McGregor's Othello tickets might be selling for £100 or more each, good seats for Much Ado would actually be worth that!