an ensemble that would later underpin the BBC’s prime time schedule

Radio It’s with a certain inevitability that since David Tennant’s returned to Benedick at the Wyndham Theatre, AudioGo would rerelease his first run out at the part opposite Samantha Spiro as Beatrice from late September 2001. In the new tie-in edition of Much Ado About Nothing, his new leading lady, Catherine Tate, describes how Tennant mentioned the radio production when she first broached and it’s clear that he thinks of it fondly. And he’s right to. It’s lovely.

Later in the same interview, the actor suggests he was, even at thirty, a bit too young for the part and that it works better slightly older actors, not quite in their first flush, perhaps best if they’re well into their second or even third. Whilst that’s true, his youthful voice still contains much maturity and as Benedick lists his many qualms about the fairer sex, particularly in the shape of Beatrice, he lends the words much experience as well as a touch if nostalgia.

Tennant was still years away from becoming a household name when this was recorded, still known within the industry as a reliable presence on radio and stage and as a character actor on screen. He plays the role in full Scotch brogue, verbally punching the syllables with superb comic timing, and it’s a unique occasion when his description of Claudio “I have known when there was no music / with him but the drum and the fife” gains a geographic resonance.

He contrasts perfectly with Spiro’s RP delivery who because of the timing of this release may well be unfairly compared to Tate. She’s repeated Beatrice too, in 2009 at Regent’s Park and garnered some excellent notices which suggest that Tennant she was unafraid of stressing her maturity and like Tennant, the first seeds of that late blooming approach are planted here. She’s smart, fearless and with a requisite obstinacy which suggests that their war of word will continue into marriage.

But it’s perhaps unfair to focus too much on that duo, when this is the kind of “all star cast” the phrase “all star cast” was designed for, an ensemble that would later underpin the BBC’s prime time schedule. Yes, that is Emilia Fox as an aristocratic Hero, a soft spoken Chiwetel Ejiofor as her beloved Claudio and Silk’s Maxine Peake in the relatively minor role of Margaret, her broad accent introducing a useful class element which is usually only reserved for the interminable Dogberry scenes.

Julian Rhind-Tutt also makes for an especially menacing Don John. On stage the character can become lost amongst the revere, a function of the misunderstandings rather than the trickster he really should be. Rhind-Tutt’s deep voice, has a cold resonance that’s barely human as though the devil himself is stalking what should otherwise be a merry comedy. When he speaks to those outside of his circle, there’s no chemistry, no sense of camaraderie.

Director Sally Avens, perhaps sensing the value of the cast, presents a simple soundscape short on gimmicks, preferring to project the language without too radical an interpretation, no 80s version of Hey Nonny Nonny here. Which isn’t to say the music doesn’t have a vital part to play in unifying the action and the orchestral score provided by composer/performers Simon Oakes and Adam Wolters has a surprisingly melancholic quality.

A final word about the excellent sound design which unlike too much audio theatre gives these characters a physical presence (rather than the disembodied voices which sometimes pull the audience out of the action). When Benedick and Beatrice hide in the arbour and listen to their friend’s subterfuge, the point of view shifts between their harrumphing and the false words they’re listening to, the change in volume suggesting almost magically that most visual of devices, the close-up.

Much Ado About Nothing (Classic Radio Theatre) is published by AudioGo. RRP: £13.25 ISBN: 978 1408 470015. Review copy supplied.

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