“It just doesn’t get much worse than this.” – elderly audience member, Monday night.
Rarely has a title for a Shakespearean show proven so prophetic. With Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones as the newly geriatric Beatrice and Benedict, it promised so much, especially given their long-standing stage relationship (in Driving Miss Daisy). I figured, hey, they’re awesome, they’re great together, they can make this work! And director Rylance decided to address the racial component of this romance head on, turning Benedict and his fellow soldiers into Tuskeegee Airmen seemingly on visit to an English country manor during World War II. You can’t imagine how proud I felt to see this moment in my country’s history coming to life on stage, with a plethora of American acting talent to make it all feel even more happy-making for me.
That was probably the last moment of pleasure for me during this show. Do American actors get really different training from British actors? I puzzled over this as I listened to Claudio make his way woodenly through his lines. I understand that most of the “soldiers” were speaking with Southern accents, but did Shakespeare really need to sound so bad? Given how well Don Pedro did, I’m sure it wasn’t the case. On the other hand, there was bad guy Don John. He had the gravitas and speaking voice of Snidely Whiplash. I couldn’t help but think of Stephen Boyce’s Aaron from Malachite’s Titus Andronicus: now THAT was a villain. Why wasn’t HE in this play?
And then, well, there was Redgrave and Jones. Um, guys, I know you’re famous and stuff, but, seriously, LEARN YOUR LINES. Jones flubbed enough that I thought the person sitting in the stage left box might have been a prompter; Redgrave was smoother in her speaking but, still, it sounded like she was in a dress rehearsal rather than second preview. I can only assume that they were both so busy they tried to cram the whole thing in their heads with two days’ notice, because, you know, HOLLYWOOD.
Finally: the set. Given that it was the EDGES of a box on a bare stage, I couldn’t help but wonder if the entire budget was spent on the big name cast (both of them). I wouldn’t normally have been too bothered by this, but the whole thing just came off so badly that I felt I had been sold a false bill of goods. You can’t just parade two actors around on a bare set and call it Shakespeare, especially not at the prices they’re charging to see these two.
There’s some hope that in a month’s time this show might settle in, but I’m deeply resentful they didn’t make a bit more of an attempt to practice the show before our paid attendance. It was just lazy and bad. I won’t be able to afford to come back, but I don’t really care: I walked out at the interval (with many others) and was completely thrilled to finish my night reading a wonderful novel by John le Carre. Now THAT was a good way to spend my evening!
(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Monday, September 9th, 2013. It continues through November 30th, by which time it might have become less of a turkey and more of a, say, goose.)