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Much Ado About Nothing' at the Old Vic

Stood outside The Old Vic looking at the prominent board that stands above the grand doors, there is a notable oversight from the title of the current production showing within – the name of the author appears to have been ejected from print. One could theorise that this is because most people, regardless of interest in theatre and the arts, know that William Shakespeare - the man who, according to American scholar Harold Bloom, 'invented the human' - penned Much Ado About Nothing, that fame comedy of bickering wits and reluctance to love. Thus, the inclusion of such facts is redundant and possibly even tautologous, so ingrained in the societal psyche is the author's work.

Or maybe it's because Mark Rylance, director of the production and Artistic Director of Shakespeare's Globe for ten years, revealed in 2007 the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt – an online petition concerning the authorship of the Bard's work. As of June 2013, 2,611 people have signed their names in agreement with Rylance's views that the Elizabethan canon commonly attributed to the boy from Stratford Upon Avon is, in fact, the creation of a noble aristocrat. The actual author has been proposed to be Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon, Edward De Vere (The 17th Earl of Oxford) or Mary Sidney, one of the first female literary successes in English history. It's not only Rylance that has voiced suspicion. Among the 20 apparent supporters from history noted in the declaration are figures as reputable as Mark Twain, John Gielgud and Charlie Chaplin.

It's difficult not to ponder how the Old Vic’s Much Ado About Nothing might be affected when the relationship between the writer and director is built on a bedrock of mistrust and 'reasonable doubt' that spans nearly 400 years. Rylance claims he first started to question Shakespeare's authority in 1989, yet went on to win an Olivier in 1993 for his performance as Much Ado's Benedick, a role that he has filled with legendary American actor James Earl Jones in the current revival.

Rylance’s production, set in the grips of World War II, casts Jones as an American GI and Vanessa Redgrave, playing his sparring partner Beatrice, as the niece of a wealthy English Lord. The setting is one obviously not imagined by Shakespeare when he was putting quill to parchment and the set, which is decidedly minimalist, does make one question if Rylance has purposefully turned away from the period setting to distance himself from the writer. However, as always, Rylance is committed to the language, themes and emotion of his work, regardless of authorship.

In a 2011 debate with Trevor Nunn, a fervent supporter of Shakespeare being Shakespeare and nothing more, Rylance commented after being asked why people defend the authorship so fiercely; “I think it's partly because the plays are so concerned with identity. I as a young man, and I expect Trevor too, and all of us who love Shakespeare, had our sense of identify confirmed when we first came to understand the plays. He gave me words to express things I was feeling and so I loved the man, and the writing, and I imagined him in my likeness. If this room was filled with a thousand Stratfordians none of us would see the same man, so why does it matter that I have a different name for the man I see, and that I see a woman involved?”

“This is the closest Mark and I are going to get to agreement” Nunn retorts “But I would contend that reading the plays makes it clear they had one author”.

No matter which side of the argument one stands, Rylance is still a formidable, if not an insurmountable, expert when it comes to practicing Shakespeare. Scholars, theatre-goers and academics around the world agree that the Shakespeare’s folio has had an inexplicable effect on our lives, language and culture and Rylance is still the cultivator of some of its greatest incarnations.

Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Mark Rylance and starring James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave, is currently showing at the Old Vic until the 30th of November.

Review by guest contributor, Andy Currums. 

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