Review – Much Ado About Nothing – Old Vic Theater


“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.)

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51 Responses to “Review – Much Ado About Nothing – Old Vic Theater”

  1. Denise Says:

    Oh what a shame. I saw the posters for this and thought what an intriguing idea. I wish I had seen Harriet Walter and Nicholas Le Prevost in what seemed to be a well receieved middle aged Benedick and Beatrice, and thought this would be just as good with such a star pair, and Mark Rylance directing too.

    • webcowgirl Says:

      I really had such high hopes for this show and it was just so, so disappointing. I’m hoping it gets better later in the run but this performance was a shambles.

      • Denise Says:

        I guess that is the risk of previews? I used to go to them at the National as a student and think “Why doesn’t everyone do this? It’s cheaper.” Now I know…

        On a plus point, I am just about to book in for a Cirque Eloize performance at the Sadlers Wells. I hope this lives up to the trailer.

        What are you planning on seeing next (to wipe the memory of Much Ado)?

      • Wondercat Says:

        Previews — yes. Last night’s unhappy mess, at full price, was several days into the nominal run. Or stumble. Or limp. Or crawl. Grrrrrr.

      • Denise Says:

        Oh no! So you were being very generous when you conjectured that they might improve as the run continued.

      • Wondercat Says:

        I was wrong. Just now I rang the Old Vic to say — This wasn’t ready for audience viewing — and was told: It’s still in previews. Hmmm. Good luck to the company by press night!

      • Denise Says:

        I imagine you’ve seen quite a few previews – are they usually this far off the mark?

        I am going to be scouring the papers for the reviews now to see what the opening performance is like!

      • Wondercat Says:

        So bad as last night’s? No. Last night’s was a nadir. Two separate prompters… but lines, chunks of speeches, still lost (especially by JEJ). Those in the cast who were using British accents were easily heard, and projected emotions as strongly as their voices. Those who were using American accents ran the wooden gamut — wenge to alder — but what if Mark Rylance instructed them to play Shakespeare in that manner? Really dreadful. I had expected something quite different from what I was given, and I felt embarrassed to have taken friends to the play.

      • webcowgirl Says:

        Denise – usually a show that’s this bad in previews is not able to catch up the gap. Technical faults can be fixed and chemistry and timings developed, but I just don’t see how this show can be fixed.

      • webcowgirl Says:

        Denise – I’m consoling myself with a trip to the Union Theater to see On A Clear Day You Can See Forever. That ought to set things to rights.

  2. Robin Millay Says:

    This is so right. Precious few nights in London and I had my choice of just about anything. Bad move that I chose this one. So disappointing and disrespectful of the audience.

  3. Chris Hyde Says:

    Tuesday Sept 10th. Barely audible in the first half. Improved after self and many others complained but still bordering on adequate in second half. Completely unacceptable, let alone at the ticket prices being charged. In product terms, NOT FIT FOR PURPOSE. . .

  4. Wondercat Says:

    Yes; seen with friends this evening (10 September) — the “professionals” gave us amateur night.

  5. christine campi Says:

    i didn’t understand a word JEJ said.. i took someone to the show as a ‘thank you’ and feel she got the booby prize. awful, just awful. saw it sept 10th,

  6. Jamie Says:

    Yes, amateur writing to go with ‘amateur night’. Not staying until the end is your prerogative, but not acknowledging that upfront and only mentioning it at the very end of your ‘review’ is just shoddy.

  7. Anne Llanos Says:

    Just to point out, most of the actors were, in fact, British doing American accents. I agree that JEJ was incomprehensible – just a series of mutters and ramblings. Shakespeare would have turned in his grave! Vanessa Redgrave did as well as she could given the terrible partner she had to banter with. No rapport whatsoever between the two, which is something of a no-no in this particular play.

  8. Patrick Steel Says:

    We saw this on the same night. Completely agree. It was one of the worst theatre experience’s I’ve ever had. And that’s saying something.

  9. Patrick Steel Says:

    experiences. Sorry about that rogue apostrophe.

  10. phil o'neill Says:

    Absolutely agree-I was so excited to see VR on stage for the first time-she seemed completely uninterested. It took me at least 30 minutes before I understood a word-even an enthusiastic lady in the same row guffawing for 10 minutes was silent until we left at the interval.Shockingly bad!!!

  11. Jan Says:

    I saw this on Saturday 7th – absolutely awful. So much wrong with it,but biggest problem was a complete lack of joy in the production. Poor acting, couldn’t hear half the lines, rubbish set, stupid song/dance interludes that added nothing to the play – even the cast couldn’t raise any passion and the whole thing was flat.

  12. Joanne Says:

    We saw this on the 9th as well. Worst performance I have ever seen, amateur shows included. Massively disappointed after booking tickets 6 months ago.

    Tonight made up for it. A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Noel Coward Theatre. Superb. Cannot recommend highly enough – go see it.

  13. Dan Freeman Says:

    I saw it opening night and it was an embarrassment. To watch actors, and especially James Earl Jones, have to actually pull notes out of their pockets to read the lines, I had never before seen that in a stage production, not even at the high-school level. Totally inappropriate. Thank goodness for the pub in the basement.

  14. Laura Says:

    I’m so glad I wasn’t the only one to hate this production. I agree the whole thing was flat. Some of the supporting actors were good but that’s about the only decent thing I have to say about it. Incredibly disappointed in VR and JEJ, Mark Rylance and the Old Vic.

  15. Tina Says:

    I didn’t think it was that bad. I went on 10th. Im sure it’ll get better. I thought Vanessa was good, and I enjoyed the Watch scenes with Peter Wright. A little kid with glasses (part of the Watch) was hilarious too. I’m sure it’ll get better a few performances in.

  16. Alice Says:

    This was the first time I’ve ever left a play during the interval. I spent the first half mainly wondering whether I had developed a hearing problem. The diction, accents and delivery all were dreadful. I was relieved that my companion felt similarly. The best part if the experience was arriving home earlier than I had planned.

  17. Linda Beaven Says:

    And that set!!! I am still puzzling over that one. What was that supposed to represent? I thought it just got in the way of everyone. help me here.

  18. Naz Says:

    We went last night and left during the interval too (September 12). If Twitter last night is anything to go by we weren’t the only ones.

    Lots of flubbed lines (my personal favourite was ‘Beatrice would make Benedick a fine husband. Erm. Wife.’) and awkwardness, generally a real disappointment when you think of the undoubted calibre of actors involved. Learning lines is always a start…

    Embarrassingly bad. And a birthday present for my sister, so that was awkward…

  19. Jane Hodgson Says:

    I also went on Monday – it was without a doubt the worst production I have ever seen. Astonishingly bad! There is absolutely no excuse for the actors not knowing their lines. What a waste of money!

  20. Melissa Says:

    I feel somewhat relieved to see these comments: one of the unsettling aspects of the whole evening ( Thursday) was the feeling of confusion: ‘surely it can’t be this bad? This theatre, this director, these actors?’
    The best spin I could put on it at the time was to think that theatre can always surprise you: I hadn’t known it was even possible to make Much Ado flat, awkward and lifeless. I have never seen or even imagined a production where the Watch scenes were more engaging than the main ‘romances’. It’s *almost* instructive to see actors playing B&B with zero chemistry or verve.
    Otherwise, I felt very cheated by the whole thing- it’s left a bit of a sour taste.

  21. Tony Stredwick Says:

    Mrs and I went along on Friday 13th….it hasn’t improved from the above criticisms although at least JEJ was not seen reading his lines! Diction and enunciation poor in the extreme from JEJ and in truth others in the cast were little better including VR. The performance of the actor playing Claudio brought to mind the time I saw David Scwimmer ham his way through Some Girl(s). His reaction to finding out that his accusation and refusal of Hero had caused her death was almost laugh out loud funny if it hadn’t been so poor a piece of acting. Very very disappointing.

  22. Syvila Chaplin Says:

    I saw this production today (Saturday 14 September). I’ve nothing new to add to previous comments. It definitely still feels like a rehearsal, the set is poor, the costumes unimaginative, the two leads weren’t really there, there is a lack of passion throughout and the glimpses of acting of a standard to entrance are sadly few and very far between.

  23. Lins Says:

    I totally agree with all previous comments. This was a dull, flat, slow, lifeless experience, completely lacking any atmosphere (sat 14th sept). I didn’t think Shakespeare could be made to look this bad. 6 people fell asleep in the dress circle and that was just in the first half – I left at the interval. £94 for 2 tickets, shocking!

  24. Jake Says:

    Agreed (Sat 14th) nearly left at the interval but we decided to stay in case it improved – needless to say it did not…

  25. Martin Townshend Says:

    What a complete disaster area (14-Sep-13 matinee). Is there no quality control? This production should never have got to previews let alone opened.

  26. Amanda Says:

    Went to see the matinee performance yesterday and only made it as far as the interval which came as a merciful break. I left the last version of this same play I booked to see feeling that it was played for – slapstick based – laughs to such an extent that the beauty of the language was lost. I thought Shakespeare’s words were in safe hands with such greats cast but was sadly wrong. A huge disappointment.

  27. emilio suarez Says:

    ¡¡¡ Uuufff¡¡¡ What a relief¡¡ Y thought I was the one absolutely dissapointed. I went from Tenerife to London the september seventh expecting to enjoy this play. I have watched “driving Ms. Daisy” to. I admit my poor english, but I didn´t understand nothing. What language speaking the actors?. I was into a complete confussion for all. By the way, what is JEJ?. And the height of absurdity, the most of audience applauding at the end.

  28. Jonathan Says:

    We went on the 14th. It was dreadful. Couldn’t understand a word JEJ said. We left at the interval.

  29. Clive Treliving Says:

    A litle perplexed with the music before the play…should have known. it was a warning. An American couple next to me asked why they were playing ‘give a little whistle’ from Pinnochio “was it relevant in some way” Of the period i suppose. The acting, as everyone seems to agree, was awful. All round awful. Not one redeeming factor for me. Amatuerish, indistinct and…. expensive. Also left at the interval. Shame on everyone involved.

  30. Karen Blackman Says:

    Saw this on Friday 13th- the date did not bode well! We left at the interval as we could not hear a word that JEJ said (or should I say mumbled). Vanessa Redgrave just looked bored. The whole production was a complete mess and we were very disappointed. I expected better from the Old Vic.

  31. Judith Fournel Says:

    I have been a professional actress & avid theatre-goer for over 50 years & I have NEVER seen anything so awful as the production of “Much Ado About Nothing” which I saw with a friend at Saturday 14 September matinee. I agree completely with everything others have said. It was amateur, embarrassing and like watching a bad school play (except that you make excuses for bad acting with kids!) It was insulting for an audience to sit through such a bad production with no redeeming features. The fact that JEJ and VR are elderly should not have mattered if either of them could have made you believe they were falling in love. JEJ looked like Captain Mannering although Arthur Lowe would have done a much better job! I was so shocked to see Vanessa in this production. She used to be a great actress but maybe she should seriously think about giving up. What was the point of setting the production in 1944? Well, Shakespeare is timeless and “modern” productions can work brilliantly (go and see Nicholas Hytner’s wonderful production of “Othello” at the NT, which is superb!) What a dreadful set as well….. It’s all very well Mark Rylance saying in his programme notes that Tyrone Guthrie used “minimalist” sets but he was a great director – sorry, Mark, I love your acting and I’ve seen your tremendous work in Jerusalem, La Bete, Twelfth Night etc., Until Saturday I was your biggest fan, but really, what on earth did you think you were doing?? Stick to acting, please! Why were the night watchmen made to be boy scouts?? which did nothing to improve the general dreadfulness. This show should close asap before more people are put through such an awful experience. My friend had not seen “Much Ado” before & she asked why I had told her it was one of Shakespeare’s greatest comedies! It was incomprehensible, the American actors could not speak their lines clearly & all the jokes and banter was lost between B & B. We would have left ( many others did) at the interval but thought it might improve. It did not & we left before the curtain call as we could not bring ourselves to stay for the polite applause.

    • Monica Clifford Says:

      My husband and I saw the showing on Saturday 14th September– the matinee. Before going I was puzzled at the casting of VR and JEJ as the young warring couple but thought ‘well its VR so it’s not about age’ . For the first ten minutes l was shocked at the staging, the characters appearing to aimless drift around the stage. I thought l would get used to the unusual interpretation of such a funny play, sadly no. I said to my husband after 10 mins in that I think I m going to hate this and I did. It was simply poor quality in all aspects. The American GI idea didn’t work. The setting was odd, the acting was shabby with characters not knowing their lines or being unsuited to their roles. Claudio was especially disappointing. In the wedding scene where he discredits and rejects Hero, he shouts but there is no real feeling of anger or betrayal. VR does deliver some of her lines especially well but other than that it was a really disappointing event. I thought about leaving at the interval, as others did, but thought how could we walk out on an actress like VR, so stayed in the hope it might improve.
      Buying tickets for this play was a very expensive mistake.

  32. Erykah Says:

    Went tonight and it doesn’t seem to have got much better. A huge disappointment – it’s one of my favourite plays but everything about it was flat. No chemistry between the leads and that gorgeous stages was just wasted. I struggled to comprehend a word JEJ was saying, his diction was appalling – I know the play fairly well and had to explain to my friend what was going on as he couldn’t hear half of the dialogue.

  33. GPM Says:

    Went last night, totally awful in every way. Tennant and Tate proved a 20th Century setting can work brilliantly so this was just poor acting and direction rather than poor interpretation. Return your tickets if you still can.

  34. Chris Watkin Says:

    I went on Tuesday 17th. This show needs to be withdrawn by the Old Vic for the sake of all concerned and tickets refunded.JEJ looked very ill by the end and I am concerned for the health of a fine actor. VR too weak vocally and too frail physically. Both know it fails on every level, production, set design (a disaster), acoustic,preparation of dialogue, even basic blocking.which has to accommodate the chairs needed for JEJ and VR, around a monolithic Kaaba-like arch serving no useful or symbolic purpose.
    An honest failure would be fine, but this is just plain bad and all should be put out of their misery. Audience leaked badly at interval.
    How ,oh how, did the OldVic allow such great theatre people to make such a misjudgement?

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  36. Lee McLoughlin Says:

    Have just arrived home after tonight’s performance and thought it was shockingly bad. Thought people were possibly being too critical after building their expectations too high but, no, they weren’t.

    Noting positive to say about it at all and Mark Rylance should be embarrassed by that set.

  37. Lins Says:

    We endured just the first half then demanded a full refund, which we got!

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