Of all the companions that David Tennant’s Doctor had during his spell in the TARDIS, it was Donna Noble that suited him the best. Pitting Catherine Tate against Tennant’s fast-talking wide boy was a match of competing, but equal, egos. When a double act works as well as Tennant’s and Tate’s did, it’s easy to reach for the Hepburn-Tracy comparison – but it feels appropriate with this pair of actors, who fizzle and spark off each other so well that it’s hard to believe that The Runaway Bride was the first time they had worked together.
So it’s good to see that now Tennant has long since turned over his TARDIS key to the new guy, the pair have found an opportunity to work together again, in Josie Rourke’s exuberant version of Shakespeare’s screwball comedy. Casting Tennant as Benedick and Tate as Beatrice feels a safe decision – not in the sense of not casting dangerously, but in that one knows that the pair will be able to portray the ups and downs of the prototypical odd couple extremely effectively.
That said, I honestly hadn’t expected Much Ado About Nothing to be so funny. Many renditions of Shakespeare’s comedies induce little more than polite laughter, but this production regularly induces real bellyaches.
This is a cast which makes sure that Tennant and Tate don’t overbalance the comedic ensemble. True, Tennant in particular has by far the greatest number of comedic scenes, each of which he milks superbly, with a manic energy that works even when it descends into slapstick. But the other comedy characters, most notably John Ramm’s Dogberry, his deputy Mike Grady and his members of the watch (Nicholas Lumley and Clive Hayward) regularly bring the house down.
To be honest, I find Tate’s comedic range somewhat limited – often here, Beatrice is a close approximation to several of her television sketch show characters. For me, she comes into her own in the more serious second act, as she develops a righteous anger in defence of her wronged cousin Hero. Tate is best when she can move from low wit to high drama in the blink of an eye, and here she really gets to demonstrate her abilities to great effect.
In contrast, Tennant’s high points come in Act One, most notably in his first entrance (although he is slightly upstaged by his mode of transport) and in the scene where Claudio, Leonato and Don Pedro talk of Beatrice’s supposed love for Benedick, in full knowledge that the latter friend is listening in. It’s a masterpiece of carefully choreographed tomfoolery that exploits Tennant’s physicality to the fullest.
The setting, an early 1980s Mediterranean naval community (the programme suggests Gibraltar), works extremely well, helped substantially by Michael Bruce’s original music, which echoes hits of the era without stepping on any copyright toes. It also means that the nightclub lighting, drunken hen party setup makes Borachio’s seduction of Margaret, which Claudio is led to believe was actually with Hero, so believable. Of course, the whole let’s-pretend-Hero-is-dead subplot doesn’t quite work, but show me a version of the play where it does and I’ll show you a theatre that’s slipped something very dodgy into the audience’s interval drinks.
Demand for tickets for this production is very high indeed – but 20 tickets every day are made available in the morning for just £10 on a lottery basis (tickets are given away from 10am, with a draw at 10.30am on the dot). It’s a great opportunity to see a large, top flight cast for a great price.