LONDON (AP) — The word "ageless" is often applied to Shakespeare's plays, which are still packing in audiences after 400 years.

But age is very much on the agenda in two new London productions. Both are well-loved comedies, both feature star casting — and that's where the similarities end.

"A Midsummer Night's Dream," at the Noel Coward Theatre, puts the emphasis on youth; the Old Vic's "Much Ado About Nothing" on maturity.

Age first. "Much Ado" has a pedigree to make theater-lovers swoon: Directed by Tony-winning actor Mark Rylance, a former artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe, it stars Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones as sparring partners Beatrice and Benedick, two resolute singletons forced to admit they are in love.

Redgrave, 76, and 82-year-old Jones are among the great actors of their generation, and showed terrific chemistry onstage in "Driving Miss Daisy." They are also much older than actors who normally play the Bard's bickering duo. It's not ageist to point this out — Rylance has said age is a central theme of the production. And the casting certainly gives some lines an extra kick, as when Benedick greets Beatrice with "Are you yet living?"

The critics agreed: it was unconventional, even bold. Many also felt it was unsuccessful.

The Guardian's Michael Billington awarded just one star out of five on Friday, calling it a "senseless" production of "misdirected oddity" — ineffectively staged and puzzlingly cast. "Two great actors are left struggling to find their character, and sometimes even their lines," he wrote.

There was some praise for the 1940s setting — in an English village billeting a band of mostly African-American U.S. troops — and for a mischief-making spirit bubbling under the surface of Rylance's production.

Libby Purves in The Times called it "one of the oddest evenings I have ever spent" — but gave it four stars, enchanted by Redgrave's "magnificent indiscipline" and Jones' "magical twinkle ... hilarious physical expressiveness and drop-dead comic timing."

"A Midsummer Night's Dream," directed by Michael Grandage, is a youthful, fast-paced production of the magical comedy anchored by two small-screen stars: actress Sheridan Smith and David Walliams, half of the comedy duo Little Britain.

Smith, who has been garnering acclaim as a versatile stage actress in plays ranging from "Legally Blonde: The Musical" to "Hedda Gabler," plays the fairy queen Titania in Shakespeare's play about young lovers bewitched, bothered and bewildered during a mood-altering summer night.

Walliams is Bottom, the pompous weaver transformed into an ass by the mischievous sprite Puck. His broad, campy performance won over most, but not all, reviewers. Paul Taylor in the Independent found Walliams "delightfully funny," though the Daily Telegraph's Charles Spencer disliked his "smarmy, supercilious demeanor."

Walliams' crowd-pleasing turn was typical of a confident production, played at a ferocious clip, that gives the magical forest setting a trippy Woodstock vibe. Amid blasts of rock music and bursts of tie-dye, fairy king Oberon (Padraic Delaney) struts around like a bare-chested rock star, while Smith's Titania is a Janis Joplin-esque den mother to a band of sprites.

There is also a fair amount of attractive young flesh on display as the quartet of confused lovers swaps sexy invective in the forest.

While some reviewers felt the production didn't touch the heart as much as it might, it undeniably drew hearty laughter.

It's another winner for Grandage, who has staged a successful season of plays that has appealed to younger audiences through a combination of big-name casting, top-notch acting and tickets priced as low as 10 pounds ($16). Previous productions have starred the likes of Judi Dench, Ben Whishaw and Daniel Radcliffe; next up, in December, is Jude Law as Shakespeare's "Henry V."

"Much Ado About Nothing" runs at the Old Vic until Nov. 30. "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is at the Noel Coward Theatre until Nov. 16.



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Michael Grandage Company:

Jill Lawless can be reached at