|Much Ado About Nothing|
Great Lakes Theater, 2013
too complicated (the courtship of Bianca, the younger sister of Katherine); the Franco Zeffirelli film (Burton and Taylor) is very good--and the kids always enjoyed watching it.
But in the summer of 1993, when I saw Kenneth Branagh's film of Much Ado About Nothing, I knew the days of Katherine and Petruchio were over. My only worry? Some bare male butts in the opening scenes--but I checked with principal Jerry Brodsky, who told me not to worry about it, and off I went with Beatrice and Benedick, Hero and Claudio, for the last few years of my middle school career. And I (we?) had a ball.
We always began by listening to a professional company reading the play aloud, following along in our own scripts, stopping and talking. I threw in all kinds of other stuff, too--Elizabethan music, food, games, history. We learned the uses of thee and thou and used those words in class. I showed a ga-zillion slides I'd taken over the years--about Shakespeare, England, etc. We even enacted a wedding scene from The Book of Common Prayer that was in use during Shakespeare's day. (Weddings are big in Much Ado.) I covered my classroom walls with Bard stuff. And on and on.
And the kids always seemed to love the film. Branagh and his (then) wife, Emma Thompson, as Beatrice and Benedick. Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves and Robert Sean Leonard and (pre-Underworld) Kate Beckinsale as Hero. And a good number of great English character actors, among them the recently deceased Richard Briers.
Much Ado is performed a lot, and the first time I saw a professional production was at the
|Alan Bates & Felicity Kendal|
But I saw a school production first of all, in the early 1980s. And our own son, Steve--who was about eleven or so at the time--was in the cast. He played the messenger who appears at the very end of the play, delivering these immortal lines: My lord, your brother John is ta'en in flight, / And brought with armed men back to Messina. Benedick advises everyone to think about John later--and then cries the final line of the play: Strike up, pipers! And everyone dances ...
The production was at Western Reserve Academy, where his mother was teaching, and the director, Corky Davis, liked to involve faculty children in minor roles. The Academy did not yet have the theater building they do now, and mounted most of the shows of the floor of the "big" gymnasium; a smaller one was adjacent. And that smaller one was the Green Room.
The first night we went to see the show, the moment came for Steve's entrance. But no Steve. The cast held ... waiting ... waiting. Those of you who have been onstage know that there is nothing longer than an unexpected silence in a play--even a root canal goes more quickly. Finally, Steve sprinted in, sprayed his lines, the play ended.
Where had he been? Shooting baskets in the Green Room. Had lost track of the show. Oops.
Branagh's film in some sense has spoiled the show for me. I've never seen a stage production I like as well--or actors whom I prefer. They just seemed to hit every note so precisely, wringing from the lines the torrents of emotion that run through the play. Last night's production, for example, was really very good--one of the better ones I've seen. But they added dialogue--even entire scenes. I thought they were too playful with some dark moments (when Beatrice said Kill Claudio and I would eat his heart in the marketplace, people laughed; during the film, I wept), and they did a gender substitution, replacing Leonato's brother, Antonio, with a wife (a character who is never mentioned in the play), whom they called ... Antonia. I understand the need for gender swaps (I did a couple myself when I directed The Merry Wives of Windsor), but this one just did not work. Antonio's lines sometimes became comical when they came from her--not what was needed.
But I still wept here and there. It is a wrenching thing to see a groom (Claudio)--at his wedding--accuse his intended bride (Hero) of infidelity and then stalk, unmarried and inflated with umbrage, out of the ceremony. And then he learns that he has been duped--Hero was not unfaithful; he learns that she has died upon the accusation (she hasn't--but he doesn't know it).
And then he learns something about the vast capacity of the human heart. Hero forgives him.
This is another of the Bard's plays about the immaturity of men, men who have to learn how to love and who learn it from the women who love them. (See: As You Like It, Love's Labour's Lost, etc.) It is, of course, a theme/plot device that continues to be popular (see, o--h, Knocked Up or just about any other Judd Apatow film).
But what gets me--every time, every single time--is Hero's forgiveness. Shakespeare knew: Without forgiveness, relationships--even love itself--can never endure.
And, yes, some of the "ado" in the play is about nothing (there is lots of frolicking--and the lie about Hero is based on nothing), but the play could just have well have been titled Much Ado About Something--because love is what those characters sought--it's what we seek--and it is very much a something, isn't it?