UK critics pan 'Much Ado' but love a comic 'Dream'
This image released by the Old Vic theatre on Friday Sept. 20, 2013, shows actors James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave in a production of William Shakespeare's 'Much Ado About Nothing', at the Old Vic in London. Vanessa Redgrave, 76, and James Earl Jones, 82, star as the sparring lovers Beatrice and Benedick, two resolute singletons forced to admit their love for each other. Redgrave and Jones are much older than actors who normally play the Bard's bickering duo. (AP Photo/Simon Annand)
LONDON (AP) — The word "ageless" is often applied to Shakespeare's plays, which are still packing in audiences after 400 years.
But age is very much on the agenda in two new London productions. Both are well-loved comedies, both feature star casting — and that's where the similarities end.
"A Midsummer Night's Dream," at the Noel Coward Theatre, puts the emphasis on youth; the Old Vic's "Much Ado About Nothing" on maturity.
Age first. "Much Ado" has a pedigree to make theater-lovers swoon: Directed by Tony-winning actor Mark Rylance, a former artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe, it stars Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones as sparring partners Beatrice and Benedick, two resolute singletons forced to admit they are in love.
Redgrave, 76, and 82-year-old Jones are among the great actors of their generation, and showed terrific chemistry onstage in "Driving Miss Daisy." They are also much older than actors who normally play the Bard's bickering duo. It's not ageist to point this out — Rylance has said age is a central theme of the production. And the casting certainly gives some lines an extra kick, as when Benedick greets Beatrice with "Are you yet living?"
The critics agreed: it was unconventional, even bold. Many also felt it was unsuccessful.
The Guardian's Michael Billington awarded just one star out of five on Friday, calling it a "senseless" production of "misdirected oddity" — ineffectively staged and puzzlingly cast. "Two great actors are left struggling to find their character, and sometimes even their lines," he wrote.
There was some praise for the 1940s setting — in an English village billeting a band of mostly African-American U.S. troops — and for a mischief-making spirit bubbling under the surface of Rylance's production.
This image released by Johan Persson on Friday Sept. 20, 2013 shows Sheridan Smith, top, David Walliams, center, and the company during the production of William Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer Night’s Dream' at the Noel Coward Theatre in London. 'A Midsummer Night's Dream,' directed by Michael Grandage, aims to attract young theatergoers with a fast-paced production of the magical comedy starring two small-screen stars: actress Sheridan Smith and David Walliams. (AP Photo/Johan Persson)
Libby Purves in The Times called it "one of the oddest evenings I have ever spent" — but gave it four stars, enchanted by Redgrave's "magnificent indiscipline" and Jones' "magical twinkle ... hilarious physical expressiveness and drop-dead comic timing."