Shakespeare, who brought us our language’s greatest tragedies, can be so many things, including bawdy, lighthearted and none too sophisticated. His dialogue is the ancestor of the witty Sun headline, and his audiences clearly appreciated off-colour jokes as much as we do today.
Catherine Tate and David Tennant bring that spirit to the West End with their raucous, slapstick interpretation of Much Ado About Nothing which had the whole theatre laughing for the pure joy of it. The plot is unlikely, and the characterisation even less so – a soldier (David Tennant’s Benedick) and a noblewoman (Catherine Tate’s Beatrice) act like a pair of embarrassed twelve year olds, disguising their love for each other in a constant barrage of witty putdowns and the biting sacasm of which Tate is an absolute mistress. Meanwhile, as Claudio is about to marry Hero, the evil Don John sets him up to believe she has been unfaithful to him. Much confusion and hilarity ensues, and it’s probably not a spoiler to say it all turns out happily in the end.
Directed by Josie Rourke, who is about to take over the helm at the Donmar, the play is set in 1980’s Gibraltar, and from electric blue dresses to ghetto blasters and a small boy playing with a rubik’s cube, show the era perfectly. Hen and stag parties, complete with lap dancing and chippendales, may be a slightly more recent innovation, or perhaps I just didn’t get invited to those sorts of hen parties in the 80s.
It’s the slapstick that makes it, and both Tennant and Tate are wonderfully physical comics. Benedick, overhearing his friends discussing how much Beatrice loves him, puts his hand in a paint can in shock, and, ducking behind various pillars to keep himself out of sight, gradually becomes covered in the stuff, messier and messier as he hears more. And of course, it wouldn’t be British humour without a bloke in drag. Tennant looks better in a mini-skirt than most women, even sitting smoking with wig off.
Tennant’s special talent is to be totally in the part, whether the utterly broken grief of his Hamlet, too solid flesh melting, or here, utterly, jubiliantly in love as he dances at his wedding. At the end, the most curmudgeonly dour cynic in the world couldn’t help but enjoy it with him.
It’s mass entertainment at it’s best, and should play a big theatre, the Olivier, or the Colliseum, for months. They’ve done the bawdy old Bard proud, and the only pity is it’s such a short run in a small theatre. In theory, it’s booking until 3 September, but the only seats available are returns and 20 seats for £10 each allocated by lottery if you turn up in person before 10.30am on the day.