England’s highly-touted Cheek by Jowl, briefly seen at BAM, brought us a dismal Much Ado About Nothing, whose title supplies a succinct epitaph for all of that company’s offerings. The group, run by the director Declan Donnellan and the designer Nick Ormerod, has just announced its temporary disbanding (possibly because that duo is no longer cheek by jowl), and none too soon for my taste. If any play needs more atmosphere than a wishy-washy unit set consisting of several raised or lowered bits of oblong canvas, monotonously lighted by the irrelevant snowflake projections of Judith Greenwood, this is the one. Paddy Cunneen’s music, screechily inapposite Irish jigs scraped out on one or two instruments, is as unhelpful as the by-now-clichéd Edwardian costuming. The direction is unimaginably unimaginative; the acting, without exception, worse.
To do this dashingly aristocratic farandole with barely middle-class accents and countenances, the actors squeezing out words like blackheads, is like imposing on us a poetry recital by a preternaturally brutish troglodyte. The one comely presence was the Hero of Sarita Choudhury, who, however, had the worst diction. I’ll mention only Stephen Mangan’s plebeian Don Pedro, Bohdan Poraj’s loutish street-corner Claudio, Matthew Macfadyen’s unsuccessful John Cleese impersonation as Benedick, and Saskia Reeves’s pip-squeaky Beatrice – those airy lovers no closer to champagne than rubbing alcohol. Leaving appalled at the break, I wondered how the yet-to-come Verges and Dogberry could possibly achieve the necessary increment in doltishness. I am told they managed.