Shakespeare and I have a bit of a love/hate relationship. I tend to love him, but sometimes he doesn’t like me quite so much, especially when I messed up badly in my Shakespeare paper at Oxford. As a play, Much Ado About Nothing and I have never really bonded. I’ve never seen it performed in a theatre; I read it, at university, in order to write an essay on it and some other comedies, but it didn’t bounce off the page to me, and for the most part I think it’s fair to say that neither of us have given each other a second thought over the intervening years. So when I thought I’d do a quick flick through the text before seeing Joss Whedon’s highly personal film version, I was surprised to realise that I don’t actually have an Arden edition copy. I ended up having to look through the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s old Shakespeare volume that was awarded to her at school in 1935 “for industry and progress”; and to be honest, it wasn’t that helpful.
As you may know, gentle reader, I am only just starting to catch up on cinema going after about fifteen years of barely seeing a thing, thanks to the supremely comfortable new Errol Flynn Filmhouse opening up seven minutes walk from home. So the name Joss Whedon doesn’t mean much to me; I had to check all the things he’s done before on wikipedia (so it must be true), and it looks a pretty impressive CV to me. He even co-wrote Toy Story, for goodness’ sake, so he must be good. I knew that this film had some extremely esoteric elements to it – for example, it was shot in a mere twelve days; the set is Whedon’s own home in Santa Monica; the cast are largely a repertory company who have appeared in many other of Whedon’s projects; and it’s all in black and white. The first three I can understand, getting it done quickly, no commuting, and working with your friends all sounds very appealing. But why the black and white? I’m not quite sure what that gained – you definitely get a sense of it being older and more historical, even though the setting is entirely up to date. Sometimes a black and white still portrait can be more expressive and atmospheric than an identical colour version – maybe that was the effect he was trying to achieve. I’m glad I never followed a career in cinematography.
To get you up to speed, the story is a simple one. In a nutshell, Benedick and Beatrice doth protest their dislike for each other too much (very reminiscent of Katharine and Petruchio in Taming of the Shrew), so their friends scheme to make them “fall in love” within a week, simply by getting them to overhear “private” conversations with others who talk about how much the one fancies the other. Alongside that, the decent but stupid Claudio, who has fallen in love with Beatrice’s cousin Hero, allows himself to be duped by the wicked Don John and his acolytes into thinking that Hero is putting herself about a bit; to the extent that he publicly jilts her at the altar. The bumbling constable Dogberry and his associates unwittingly stumble upon the plot against Claudio so that the truth eventually comes out and multiple marriages ensue; all’s well that ends well, one might say.
Mrs Chrisparkle and I both thought it was a little slow to start; there’s quite a lot of scene-setting at the beginning and meeting a lot of people who, without the aid of a theatre programme, you really haven’t got a clue who they are. Personally I also found it very softly spoken throughout, and I certainly missed quite a lot of the dialogue at first. However, when it really starts to get going, as the mischievous plots to get Benedick and Beatrice together develop, it gains a good momentum and at times is really funny. The scene where Benedick overhears Don Pedro, Leonato and Claudio’s conversation about him and Beatrice is full of laugh-out-loud physical comedy, as is the subsequent eavesdropping of Beatrice on the similar conversation between Hero and Margaret the maid. There’s also a brilliantly funny scene between Benedick and Beatrice where he is trying to impress her with his physical exercise prowess; and the scene where Claudio rejects Hero is also extremely dramatic. Some of the best moments, however, are reserved for the final few scenes where Dogberry and his team bring the villains to book, and it all ends happily ever after.
Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker invest the roles of Benedick and Beatrice with huge personality and splendid self-interest. They’re appropriately mischievous and waspish when sparring, and deliver some very nice pratfalls as the plot thickens. Once they have protested their love for each other, the scene where Beatrice demands Benedick kills Claudio, out of respect for her cousin’s apparent death from grief, is very moving and serious, and played with all the necessary gravitas. Fran Kranz is a very good Claudio, boyishly enthusiastic for his virtuous Hero, then turning all spoilt and savage as he laps up the poison fed by the schemers against him. Jillian Morgese is a very dignified Hero, with a very nice line in underplayed comedy in the scene with Margaret for Beatrice to overhear.
The other really superb performance is from Nathan Fillion as Dogberry, the character now evolved into the role of head of security at the Governor’s residence, sharp-suited yet still a totally blithering idiot, shocked but not remotely speechless at Conrade’s calling him an ass, and with a fantastically misplaced sense of his own self-importance. He enjoys terrific support from Tom Lenk as his even more ridiculous sidekick Verges.
It’s a really accessible and entertaining adaptation, sensitive to both the original text and the need to make it relevant to today. As Mrs C said on the way home, they must have had such fun making it. Definitely worth seeing.