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The Audience Is The Thing

March 26, 2008

Theatre audiences are often so polite that the actors up on stage must sometimes wonder if there are people out there beyond the footlights or if everyone has gone to sleep.

With this in mind, it was refreshing to attend a matinee performance of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing at The National Theatre in London the other day and find myself surrounded by people who seemed to be awake and willing to give the actors back as much as they were getting, even if Nicholas Hytner's production did leave much to be desired.

The theatre was packed with school groups. It's been a long time since I was in a venue with this many teenagers all at once. And though from my vantage point at the back of the house I could see one kid playing a video game on his cellphone, everyone else seemed completely engaged with what was happening on stage.

They laughed raucously during Hytner's hammily-staged scenes in which Benedick (Simon Russell Beale), then Beatrice (Zoe Wanamaker), trying to eavesdrop on conversations about their love lives, take cover by diving headlong into a square pool in the middle of the stage. They gasped when Hero (Susannah Fielding) came back to life. They whistled enthusiastically when sparring partners Beatrice and Benedick kissed. And they jumped out of their seats and cheered and threw their arms in the air Mexican-wave style during the curtain calls.

As for the production itself, even a formidable talent like Russell Beale couldn't save this Much Ado from atrophy. I rather liked the idea of Beatrice and Benedick being played by a couple of grey and paunchy old actors. It somehow made their burgeoning romance among the tombstones of Hero and Claudio's wayward youthful passion seem more poignant. Yet the braying quality of Wanamaker's voice made it particularly hard to understand Benedick's attraction to her. Hytner's mise-en-scene was full of gimmicks like the aforementioned double mutton dipping moments. And Vicki Mortimer's set, though undoubtedly versatile with its permeable wooden-slatted walls and sharp, minimalist contours, made me giddy with its constant gyrations.

Still, I had a good time. Let's just say that the award for the most engrossing performance that day went to the audience rather than any of the actors.

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