O to be in England, with Two Productions of Much Ado

[The other day I noted that someone had come here by searching on “Kate Maltby Much Ado.” They must have known I’d already decided to write this post . . . .]

I’d always thought that when Evelyn Waugh died, the species “intelligent conservative” (or “Conservative”) died with him. The Spectator’s Kate Maltby seems bent on changing my mind. She also inspires passionate envy by having seen the two productions of Much Ado About Nothing going on simultaneously in London that she reviews here. If I could get over to see them, rest assured I would.

I doubt that Sir Jonathan Miller shares my enthusiasm. Once upon a time he not only had a sense of humor, he was the cause of laughter in others, as a member of the seminal comedy troupe Beyond the Fringe (whom we will encounter when we discuss the Henry VI plays, of all things). Despite substantial cultural accomplishments since, particularly as an opera director (his staging of Janácek’s Kát’a Kabanová remains one of the greatest opera productions I’ve ever seen; he also directed the 1980s BBC Shakespeare production of The Taming of the Shrew with John Cleese as Petruchio, which we will encounter by and by), he is probably best known these days for bemoaning the casting of “that man from Doctor Who” as Hamlet, overlooking the fact that David Tennant has long been a card-carrying member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, having first appeared in an RSC production in 1996. (While researching this post I discovered that Tennant had responded to Miller; the only thing to say is Touché! I only wish that he had taken the opportunity to deny altogether the distinction between “high” and “low” art rather than just the specific characterization of Doctor Who as “low” and Hamlet as “high.”) Now the TARDIS has landed on Miller’s lawn again, disgorging not only Tennant again but Catherine Tate.

That said, one could argue that Miller has a better case here. Tennant’s Shakespearean chops are well established by now, but I doubt that even Tate would suggest that she was cast for any reason other than her stint on Doctor Who. So to a degree this is the kind of stunt casting I’ve questioned before, and I know perfectly well how much lots of people in the UK are bovvered by her; but she did show talent and, more important for casting purposes, real chemistry with Tennant on Doctor Who. There are worse places for Shakespeare than the TARDIS, and we’ll see far, far worse instances of stunt casting (Alicia Silverstone as the Princess in Love’s Labour’s Lost? What was Kenneth Branagh thinking?)

Without having seen either staging, I suspect Maltby’s judgment is pretty much right. Given all I’ve said, the Tennant-Tate Much Ado could scarcely help but be lighter, more pleasing to a summer crowd, and less emotionally intense—“a highly polished comedy expertly designed for box office success,” and it makes perfect sense that that would be at least partly down to Tate’s casting (“Catherine Tate has a great time with the slapstick physical comedy, but she lacks the emotional vulnerability that Eve Best reveals in the same role at the Globe.”) I do think, though, that Much Ado, as the lightest of the major comedies, is far from necessarily ill served by a lighter touch. Featuring Shakespeare’s least competent and least characterized villain in Don John, the play never really makes us believe that Hero’s happiness is endangered, or that Beatrice and Benedick will fail to get together. Maltby is talking about nuances in the relations between Beatrice and Benedick and Hero and Claudio that unquestionably deepen the play and its emotional impact but whose absence wouldn’t vitiate it, as she makes clear.

I wonder whether Maltby would accept a comparison between Tennant-Tate and Bringing Up Baby, one of the funniest movies ever made but one that comes up a little short on emotional depth, largely because of Katharine Hepburn’s performance. Similarly, I wonder whether the Globe production is comparable to The Lady Eve, an even greater screwball comedy precisely because the incomparable Barbara Stanwyck makes us believe that Eve really did fall in love with old Hopsy, dammit, and that all her actions follow from her emotional state. In any case, I’d still like to see for myself. Who wants to fly me over to London for the upcoming long Canada Day weekend?

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