After the much-publicised Hamlet, this is the other production in this Stratford season with Dr Who actor David Tennant playing a leading role.
It would be pleasant, if arguably a bit redundant, to say that his Berowne was utterly different from his Hamlet. But in fact it’s pretty much more of the same – commanding, charismatic, ironic, energetic, quizzical. This time it’s just the comedy with the tragedy taken out.
Director Gregory Doran opts unexpectedly for a setting in Shakespeare’s own period, with gorgeous costumes by Katrina Lindsay and a beautiful set by Francis O’Connor consisting of a huge tree with a naturalistic trunk and a glittering cascade of glass-shard leaves.
Doran turns up the knockabout and innuendo to maximum settings, succeeding at least to some extent in covering over the lumpy plotting and clunky rhyming of one of Shakespeare’s drier and rarely-produced comedies.
It’s one of those productions where you almost feel that the company is appealing directly to the audience over the author’s head to love them. And, at the performance I saw on Saturday, the audience seemed happy enough from the outset to be swept along by gags which sometimes verge on the self-indulgent.
The plot, in case you’ve forgotten, involves the attempt of the youthful King of Navarre and three friends to forego all social pleasures, including the company of women, for three years of cloistered academic study.
It’s clearly doomed from the start, even before the King of France’s daughter turns up with three companions perfectly matched to the would-be students. On to this basic premise Shakespeare loosely tacks a handful of comic types including a pretentious Spanish nobleman, Don Adriano, and a pedantic schoolmaster, Holofernes.
I wanted to like Joe Dixon’s Don Adriano, but actually found him rather laboured and not particularly funny. But if, as someone said to me during the interval of Hamlet, Oliver Ford Davies was born to play Polonious, then he was surely also born to play Holofernes.
The relationship between this character and the rest of the play seems almost as tenuous as a pantomime turn, but thank goodness for him because he is one of Shakespeare’s special comic inventions.
With a nicely integrated score by Paul Englishby and a touch of folksy song and dance, this production demonstrates that in the right hands you don’t necessarily need top-drawer Shakespeare for a good night out in Stratford.