Much Ado About Much Ado

Posts occurring on Valentine’s Day are practically obligated to have a romantic theme.  Well, this is as close as I’m likely to get: the Shakespearean play that made me fall in love with love.

Everyone remembers their first, I mean the first production of a Shakespearean play.  It tends to dominate their world view and every play by the Bard they see after that.  Present a newbie with the star-crossed lovers in Romeo and Juliet, and you’ll find you’ve created a romantic; force another to audit a poor reading of Julius Caesar, and they’ll loathe plays and politics for the rest of their days.  Like so many others, the first Shakespearean play I ever watched is still my favorite today.  It gave me the way I like to look at romance.  Tragic lovers can entertain somebody else, I favor the wit and laughter of Much Ado About Nothing.
What makes this lighthearted romp so different from Shakespeare’s other comedies isn’t the “supposed” leading couple of the piece (Claudio and Hero) but his comedic characters, Benedick and Beatrice.  From one perspective these potential partners have everything in common: they’re both smart, funny, astonishingly verbal, unromantic, sarcastic and brave.  Their similarities give them one other trait to share: they hate each other.  These two began one-upping and upstaging each other long before the story begins, so the first time the audience sees them together is just a fresh outbreak of hostilities.  They don’t just steal every scene, they up and run away with the play. 
What’s great about Benedict and Beatrice is that neither ever gives an inch, even after they’ve fallen for each other.  Both of them are equally determined to have the last word and love makes neither one soft in the head.  Every smart couple, love-at-first-fight romcom owes a debt to these two.  I swear, they taught Tracy and Hepburn how to spar.

 2011 production of the play starring David Tennant and Catherine Tate.
 (courtesy of Digital Theatre.com) 

There are two issues often found in productions of this play, both good and bad. First, the setting. For years, theatrical companies have enjoyed adding dimensions to Much Ado by giving it an anachronistic setting.  In the 70’s, Joseph Papp’s Edwardian Era themed production turned the law officers into Keystone Cops (hysterical, by the way). Kenneth Branagh gave us a film adaptation some 20 years later with 18th-century costumes and a villa, and Joss Whedon filmed a modern-dress version a few years ago that was shot in his own house. That’s the fun bit.  The challenge is finding actors with matching comedic and Shakespearean skills to play Benedick and Beatrice.  This comedy only works if the audience likes and understands both characters as equals.  If either actor is too much of a ham or unable to handle the Elizabethan text, the equation gets out of balance.  But when both actors can meet the demands of the text, the result is pure champagne: bubbly, frothy, intoxicating fun.

So, if you are tired of the moody and lovestruck Heathcliffs and Edward Cullens; if you can’t stand one more sweet, victimized, Juliet; if you’ve worn out your DVD of Pride and Prejudice and a neighbor has your copy of The Thin Man, re-read or watch a good production of Much Ado.  It’s a Valentine for the mind and the heart.

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