Thursday, January 8, 2015

All Mirth and No Matter: Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado is such a popular work, mostly celebrated for the witty banter between Beatrice and Benedick, that I was rather shocked to discover, when I sat down to re-read it, that I don't actually think it's all that great a play on the page. (In fact, I'm sure it's part of the reason I got so bogged down getting this project going). It's certainly filled with clever wordplay in those famous scenes, but what surrounds it is surprisingly stilted. The reliance on mistaken identity and disguise, while ancient staples of comedy, feels a little ham-handed and contrived, and Don John as a bad guy (with henchmen) has little motivation, other than his stated melancholic humour (and the villain's comeuppance is surely among the most unsatisfying ever written -- it's noted that he has fled, and then just before the final curtain we hear he has been captured, but his fate and the plot's resolution is left for another day).

What makes this the work of a master and not just an Elizabethan rom-com is Shakespeare's willingness to let the machinations play out nearly to the point of catastrophe before setting everything right for the happy ending. To do this, we have to believe that Hero could die of shame when her alleged wantonness is exposed at her wedding. I think this core concept is very difficult to sustain for a modern audience, even one steeped in discussions of rape culture and "slut shaming." Hero doesn't face just the ruin of her reputation, or even exile and shame, but her own father states that if the slander is true, she'd be better off dead and her purported death from shame is thoroughly accepted as possible, in light of the dishonor she has brought to the family. And it is the resistance of Beatrice and Benedick, along with the Friar, alone among their social set, to the smearing of Hero that makes it clear that their hearts are meant for one another.

I don't doubt that Shakespeare's audience found more to connect with in this play. A villain (a bastard) driven by his ill humour fit entirely within their worldview, as did a young woman's fate determined by an unquestioning patriarchal judgment of her chastity. But the reliance on these points makes this play less than timeless.

So Much Ado comes down to performance to imbue it with a life I didn't take away on the page. This generally is attributed to excellent chemistry between the Beatrice and Benedick (how many actor couples have played these roles opposite one another?) but the whole production needs to bring that energy, pacing, and believable stakes. For this to work, we need to believe that John is willing to go all the way with his plot of destruction, we need to believe that Hero's life could be at stake, and we need to believe that these people will be torn apart if she isn't saved. To make the turn from comedy to tragedy to comedy succeed, those motivations, stakes, emotions, and relationships need to feel real, and these characters less cardboard than they seem on the page.

There is a lot of PLOT in this play, and a lot of highly constructed wordplay, but the characterizations feel stock to me, composed of attributes needed to make them play their parts in the mechanics of the story. It's a play with a lot of gears turning on every level, like a farce. When it's staged well, a farce can be a wonderful thing, but if it lacks characterization and emotional force, it's ultimately empty. A theme I appreciate in this play is the way cynicism masks true emotional vulnerability, and how the shedding of cynicism through near-tragedy leads to genuine connections and comeuppance. To make that persuasive, we need to believe the genuine is lurking beneath the words and the plotting. We need to see the human faces beneath the masks.

I've long been interested in how Much Ado plays with the conventions and mechanics of comedy, showing how easily the amusing misunderstandings, meddlings, and dissemblings can go awry and lead to tragedy. Of course, as a comedy, we require a reversal to provide the mandated happy ending, and that is engineered here. But I actually find the point more persuasive in Romeo & Juliet, where many of the same trappings -- the masked ball, the intercepted messages -- lead to their unavoidable tragic conclusion. The comedy-turned-tragedy structure is painfully ironic, and when the turning points are reached, the emotional wallop remains, 400 years later, powerful. Much Ado, witty as it is, packs little punch for me. Since it doesn't have much to say to me in terms of its structure, I have to find it charming in performance.

Over the last few days I watched three filmed productions -- Kenneth Branagh's 1993 film, Joss Whedon's 2012 film, and Josie Rourke's 2011West End staging. Two of these, the Whedon and the Rourke, have modern settings (contemporary Los Angeles and 1980s Gibraltar, respectively), while the Branagh takes place in a sunny Tuscan villa in some unspecified past time that involves breeches and corsets but allows bare-legged alfresco dining.

Both the Whedon and Rourke productions suffered from a disconnect between the setting and the stakes. While I admired the DIY spirit of the Whedon film -- good friends who enjoy playing with Shakespeare do it (relatively) cheap and fast in a naturalistic setting -- and the liveliness of the comedy in the Rourke, I think the modern, wealthy milieu in both productions undercut the stakes. I simply could not accept that Hero's purported lapse in chastity could result in a barrage of shame and her father perferring her death to dishonor after a weekend house party including erotic acrobats, hot-tub cocktails, and sexual entanglements among the guests (Whedon) and onstage stag and hen parties complete with blow-up sex dolls and strippers (Rourke).  Indeed, in the Whedon the open sexuality of characters including Beatrice and Benedick (seen in flashbacks) and Don John with a female Conrade make the shame rained down on Hero even more baffling. Without this core motivation, all the charming banter and creative comic lazzi feels hollow.

Branagh doesn't fully avoid these problems, by virtue of his setting his production n the sensuous world of a Tuscan villa. The setting is so sunny, so strewn with tanned limbs and ripe fruits -- the opening sequence features giddy tearing off of clothes and nude communal showers -- that again, I find it hard to wrap my head around the contrast between this cheerful hedonism and the chastity scandal to follow. (Of the atrocious performance of Keanu Reeves, it is best not to speak.)

What the Branagh version does more successfully -- and I saw some of this in the Rourke as well -- is to make Claudio's accusation motivated by his heartbreak that Hero was untrue to him more than his fury to have been betrothed by fraud to a woman who was not a maid. Hero, then, also has her heart broken, to see the man she loves think she has betrayed him and that he is lost to her. I saw less of this personal betrayal in the Whedon and more fury on Claudio's part to have been sold a bill of goods. It helps that in the Branagh film we witness this pivotal scene through Claudio's eyes, whereas in the Whedon film the scene is glimpsed in flashback as Borachio narrates it to Conrade. 

But whether we believe Claudio is heartbroken or not, the play still requires that Leonato and Don Pedro turn their fury onto Hero for her lack of chastity, with such venom that they find death preferable. I think this is too hard a sell for the worlds in which the Whedon and the Rourke productions are set, and requires the audience to accept a mindset that simply doesn't ring true. The fit is uneasy in the Branagh, too, but at least the "once upon a time, in Tuscany" setting helps a bit.

I can certainly imagine contemporary settings adhering to traditional notions of female sexual conduct that could work. How about a Sopranos-style Mafia family where adherence to old-world Catholicism and macho control of wives and daughters demands female chastity despite modern temptations? (I thought this was going to be the case in the opening scene of the Rourke production, where there were a heck of a lot of male chests sporting gold chains, but no.) A family centered on a successful TV evangelist? A Bollywood setting could incorporate these stakes and easily accommodate the masquerade and mistaken identity elements that make the plot machinery turn and also can feel strained in a Western, contemporary setting. A middle eastern sheikh's palace? I could even see a very rich contemporary adaptation in which Hero is a high school student who has been "slut shamed" on Facebook, leading to believable reports of her suicide.

So as hard a time as I had getting myself into the play on the page, and despite the problems I see in trying to make the play fit in a modern setting (which is a project I generally support in contemporary Shakespeare productions -- I'd rather see the attempts flaws and all), I leave my immersion in Much Ado as enthusiastic as I ever was to see it come alive onstage (or onscreen) again and again.

P.S. I don't expect to write this much about every play, or to review so many productions, but this one has been on my mind for a couple of years now, so out it came.

Title: Beatrice in II, i, 133.