Much Ado About Nothing
2012: Robin Lough (directed for stage by Jeremy Herrin)
This is the Globe production of the play. As are all the rest of the series, it’s filmed from a live performance in the reconstructed Globe Theatre in London. Sets are minimal, costumes basic, and both the acting and delivery are rather stagy. But if one is looking to find an experience as close as possible to the first performances of this play, this is the one to pick.
This is certainly one of the more complete versions of the play you can find, running 166 minutes. If there were nothing else to commend it, that would suffice: the full complement of lines will inevitably enhance the presentation of the characters, and there are lines one is likely not to have heard in other productions. Beyond that, though, it’s a masterful production. The actors handle the roles with a flexibility that bespeaks deep familiarity with both the text and its performance context. Especially in the specifically comedic material, timing is critical, and they have mastered it. Parts are suffused with a sensibility reminiscent of standup comedy, but it works. Claudio can get a laugh out of the line, “How still the evening is,” or Benedick from “This can be no trick”. I think this doesn’t connote any lessened respect for the material, but it’s playing with it in the best sense.
Eve Best’s Beatrice is rather more forward and brash than I think she needs to be in all circumstances — a scrappy cat, not as urbane and cultured as either Cherie Lunghi’s or Emma Thompson’s. Her appeal is certainly less obvious, but at times she’s quite brilliant. Especially in the more farcical bits of the play, she can wring enormous results from simply delaying her response a beat or two. Benedick is similarly broad in his gestures, and exaggerated (as befits the stage performance), and he has a great feel for the physical component of comedy, and it works well.
The more serious parts of their interaction are harder to assess. Even lines like “Kill Claudio,” are played for laughs (and get them). One of the chief characteristics of Shakespearean comedy, it seems to me, is that it tends to skate very close to the edges of tragedy, and reducing everything to laugh-lines achieves a short-term gain at a long-term cost, and also flattens Shakespeare’s prodigious variability to a certain sameness. Hero’s sense of shock and abandonment is real and justifiable. Beatrice’s anger and grief at the situation is real. Leonato’s perplexity and grief is real. They really aren’t funny, and only by building up this tragic potentiality is the release and relief at the end of the play made possible. The later parts of the play, such as Benedick’s actual challenge to Claudio, are played with greater seriousness, and I think that provides the foundation that would otherwise be missing.
Compensatorily, perhaps, Hero and Claudio are more interesting than they usually are. Claudio is portrayed as constantly embarrassed through the early stages of his wooing, and rather tongue-tied most of the time. He becomes more appealing and sympathetic to the audience in the process, and the comedy enhances his more serious potential in the long term. Hero manages to project a greater sense of loss and confusion than one sometimes sees.
Dogberry has a range of peculiar intermittent vocal gestures (one something like "Huawwww", and the rest equally meaningless — all of them inserted randomly and without any reason whatever that I can discern), and a few others like it, that get weary after about two repetitions. Unfortunately they’re repeated a lot more than two times. I personally find him the most irritating Dogberry I have seen. In other respects his performance isn’t bad, given the broad tonality of the whole.
The scope of the stage business here — the gestures of the actors and the little extra things they do — is remarkable and worth appreciating on its own. The actors frequently interact with the audience in a way that’s probably close to the way the plays were first performed, and the audience rises to the challenge. They boo Don John as he unfolds his diabolical plan. Eve Best as Beatrice goes so far as to grasp people in the front row by the hand, and clearly they are quite taken with it. The production is is not above making reference to other performances, either: there is one point in the tricking of Beatrice where she reacts audibly to what Hero is saying, and then attempts to cover it by trying to turn it into a bird-call, just as Benedick does in the Branagh (1993) version.
Because this was filmed during a live performance, it is subject to some of the unpredictable vicissitudes of real-time performance. During the course of the filming it begins to rain, and the theater is open to the air. The groundlings in the central area are covered with raingear, and one can hear the rain and see the wet area at the leading edge of the stage. It’s a part of the original experience too, and the players play right through it.
The image is crisp and the camera work is good. Shots are changed up with enough frequency to keep things lively and cinematic in feel, while the continuity of a live production keeps the pace from becoming artificial. At the same time, all the shots are all from a distance — even the close frames are not from a close camera, but in zoom. The difference in effect is subtle, but overall it creates less intimacy of perspective than one might well find in a more cinematic handling, and that’s probably suitable in conveying the feel of a stage production.
This is not my favorite version of this play; for my taste, parts of it are more farcical than they need to be or ought to be. But on those terms, it’s remarkably well played from one end to the other, and there are many good reasons to watch it. There are a few pieces of suggestive physical acting that some parents or teachers might find offensive.
Beatrice: Eve Best
Benedick: Charles Edwards
Pedro: Ewan Stewart
Leonato: Joseph Marcell
Claudio: Philip Cumbus
Dogberry: Paul Hunter
Hero: Ony Uhiara
Borachio; Friar Francis: Joe Caffrey
Don John; Sexton: Matthew Pidgeon
Margaret: Lisa McGrillis
Antonio; Hugh Oatcake: John Stahl
Ursula: Helen Weir
Conrade: Marcus Griffiths
Balthazar; George Seacoal: David Nellist
Verges: Adrian Hood
Men of Mesina: Paul Ginika Etuka
Men of Mesina: Greg Page