Redgrave’s Old-Time Romance, Sheridan Smith Shines

James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave are playing the frolicsome young lovers Benedick and Beatrice -- at the ages of 82 and 76 respectively.

Anyone familiar with the work of these veterans might watch them with fond glow in “Much Ado About Nothing,” at London’s Old Vic theater.

Newcomers, on the other hand, might wonder what the fuss is about. They struggle to move about, have problems with vocal projection, and look ill at ease.

Earl Jones often stumbles over his lines and frequently needs to rest his aged frame on a conveniently-placed chair too. Can this really be the dashing Benedick who has just returned from war covered in glory? The necessary erotic tension with his on-off sparring partner Beatrice is in dangerously short supply.

Then there are the logical problems. Hero is played by sparky young Beth Cooke, whose CV announces her playing age as 18. You have to wonder how she ended up with a 76-year-old first cousin, and why this old lady should be her bedfellow.

Director Mark Rylance sets the action in England in 1944. Beatrice’s family is from the landed gentry, and Benedick is a member of a black American air force regiment stationed nearby. It’s a neat idea, designed to provide an environment in which the actors can use their own accents.

That’s where the neatness ends. The direction otherwise is mostly vague, with little detail given to the characters’ relationships or status. The vagueness also extends to the minimalist wooden set, which centers on an ugly square arch.

The show is brought alive by occasional flashes of greatness from the leads. Redgrave blows a raspberry in scorn at Jones. Jones bursts out laughing, slapping his knees at the folly of love. It might be enough to tempt their fans to see them in action. Rating: **.

Midsummer Night

There’s more Shakespeare at the Noel Coward Theatre where “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, the latest production in the Michael Grandage Season is now playing.

Grandage sets the action in the 1960s, and presents the fairies and sprites of the forest as a semi-naked community of toned young hippies. The young lovers, fleeing the uptight restrictions of Athenian city life, find their lives turned upside down by Oberon’s mind-altering drugs.

After an engaging start, something stalls in the engine of the production. There are no magic transformations, the simple set offers few surprises, and the comic scenes with Bottom (David Walliams channeling Kenneth Williams) feel desperately leaden.

The female actors show how it should be done. Sheridan Smith is an authoritative and quizzical Titania, and Susannah Fielding and Katherine Kingsley get plenty of laughs as Hermia and Helena. What oomph there is, is due to them. Rating: ***.

Reworked Lulu

“American Lulu” at the Young Vic is a radical reworking of Alban Berg’s opera “Lulu.” Composer Olga Neuwirth updates the action to the era of the civil rights movement in America, and re-writes the character of Lulu’s lover Geschwitz (here called Eleanor) as a black jazz singer. She creates a libretto for the third act to present a showdown between two women.

Some of the brutal expressionist energy of Berg’s opera survives in the strangely fragmented scenes and caustic humor.

Much gets lost too. The final scenes become preachy, the civil rights background doesn’t add anything, and Neuwirth’s music sounds less sophisticated than Berg’s.

If it’s not a work which requires audience involvement in a conventional sense (all those bitty scenes) it still needs to draw spectators in. Director John Fulljames doesn’t offer much to help, and plenty of people walked out when I saw it.

They missed a sensational performance from soprano Angel Blue in the title role. Her voice is warm and supple, her acting nuanced and humorous. Jazz singer Jacqui Dankworth is an energetic Eleanor too.

It makes me want to go back to the original again, which is no bad thing. Rating: **½.

“Much Ado About Nothing” is at the Old Vic. or +44-844-871-7628. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is at the Noel Coward Theatre. or +44-844-482-5141. “American Lulu” is at the Young Vic. or +44-20-7922-2922

Muse highlights include Martin Gayford on art, Robert Heller on rock and Elin McCoy on wine.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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