As I’ve explained in my review of Love’s Labour’s Lost (RSC 2014), this production was presented as Love’s Labour’s Won by the Royal Shakespeare Company. This was a controversial decision that confused audiences and led to heated debate among scholars, since Love’s Labour’s Won is either the title of a lost Shakespeare play or an alternative title for an existing play. Which one? Who knows! An episode of Doctor Who was dedicated to it, that’s the level of mystery we’re talking here. Still, I can see why one would want to stage these plays as a duology: they are variations on similar themes. Both Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing have a distinct male and female group, men asked to prove their love, strong female characters who are more demanding than forgiving, clear class differences, and a whole lot of banter. Some critics have even argued that Berowne and Rosaline were a kind of try-out for Beatrice and Benedick.
The setting is the same (Charlecote Park, post-WWI this time) and most of the cast members return, but this production fails exactly where Love’s Labour’s Lost so gloriously succeeded: using the setting to enhance the themes of the story.
In my Love’s Labour’s Lost review I wrote at length about the loss of innocence, about reality crashing in and ruining the party. In Much Ado, the men are returning from the war and find a way to build a life back home again. We can even see the difference between these two modes in the plays’ use of language: where Love’s Labour’s Lost is full of lofty rhetoric and poetry, Much Ado is almost entirely in prose. The conversations are to the point and sound natural; they are real.
However, there is one major problem: in the text of the play, the war barely plays a part at all. It is just a plot device to get this group of male characters in a certain place, a narrative excuse. Past battles are mentioned, but only in passing and never in a serious tone. It’s almost like these men did not actually go to war at all, but went on a nice patrol in the countryside where they possibly beat up some ruffians, brushed it off, and then went back home for a nice glass of wine. World War One, on the other hand, is one of Britain’s major traumatic experiences that was so horrifying and so brutal that it changed something in the nation’s consciousness. Men either came back with severe post-traumatic stress disorder or did not come back at all, artists had to invent new ways of expression to cope with the terrible things they had seen, a whole generation was crippled… See the problem here? The men wear military uniforms in the opening scenes and at the wedding, Don John has a leg injury, but other than that there are very few visible consequences. The moment they return, everything goes back to normal instantly and no one is any the wiser.
One look at the opening scene tells you everything that doesn’t work about this production. First, it shows that Charlecote Park has been used as a military hospital during the war; Beatrice and Hero enter in nurse’s uniforms and start making the beds. This does not go anywhere and is never mentioned again. Beatrice then jokes about Benedick: “I pray you, how many hath he killed and eaten in these wars? But how many hath he killed? for indeed I promised to eat all of his killing.” Not only does this joke fall flat, but it crashes and burns in the worst possible way. Jesus Christ Beatrice, the man was in the trenches. Especially in a year full of centenary events, where the details of the war are fresh on everyone’s minds (and I myself spent many hours reading Great War literature for the occasion), this is not just not funny, but incredibly inappropriate and insensitive. For the rest of the play, the war is pretty much irrelevant and never brought up again… Except in one, very surprising instance.
Much Ado walks the fine line between comedy and tragedy, which has confused both audiences and critics for centuries. This makes each new production unique: there are many lines that can either be played for laughs or completely seriously, and a director and his actors have to decide which route they will take over and over again (I will dedicate a future post to the words “kill Claudio” alone – it’s a fascinating story and a lot more complicated than you might thing). However, what every single interpretation to date seems to agree on is this: Dogberry is a comedic character who exists to be laughed at and provide some much-needed levity after the heavier scenes. He is a silly man who says silly things and that is all there is to him. …Or is there?
In one of the scenes, Dogberry interrogates his two suspects in the tiny, tiny kitchen in his house. There is a lot of physical slapstick related to how small the space is and how little room they have to move, and the audience eagerly leaps at the easy laughs, desperate for some comedy after disastrous wedding. However, the scene suddenly shifts when Conrade calls Dogberry an ass, who then famously barks:
Dost thou not suspect my place? dost thou not suspect my years? [...] I am a wise fellow, and, which is more, an officer, and, which is more, a householder, and, which is more, as pretty a piece of flesh as any is in Messina, and one that knows the law, go to; and a rich fellow enough, go to; and a fellow that hath had losses, and one that hath two gowns and every thing handsome about him.
Usually these lines are strictly comical, but actor Nick Haverson has a different take: his voice breaks on the words “a fellow that hath had losses” and pauses for a moment before continuing, like he has to pull himself together. All of a sudden, we cannot help but wonder about Dogberry’s lame foot, the strange tics he has had throughout the play. Caught off-guard, he then gets his bad foot stuck in a bowl, automatically reaches for his drying rack, and uses it as a walking aid. The audience roars with laughter, but I was too preoccupied with all the questions this raises: what losses? How did Dogberry get these injuries? Is the use of the drying rack a sign of past physical therapy? Why does he care so much about getting respect? And why does he insist that he is “a rich fellow enough” even though we can clearly see that his house is absolutely tiny? What on earth happened in his past to get him to this point? The scene ends with Dogberry waving the others out of the room and sinking into his chair. As he looks at his hands, we can see that they are shaking uncontrollably (a clear sign of PTSD if ever there was one). As the set sinks into the floor and the lights dim, he rests his face in his trembling hands.
With the smallest of changes, Dogberry suddenly became a tragic character that broke my heart in a way I have never experienced in a Much Ado production before (and I have seen a lot of them).
Too bad subtle moments like this were thin on the ground for the rest of the play. Instead we get Benedick mugging behind the curtains, mugging whilest hiding in the christmas tree (yes, that happens), and mugging while waltzing with a framed photograph of Beatrice. The audience laughs, but it hardly feels deserved. Edward Bennett has a very expressive face and seems to have a lot of fun playing up the camp, but it is still a shame that, for a play with such a dazzlingly witty text, the biggest laughs come from physical slapstick.
This doesn’t mean that there is nothing to like about this production. The songs are great, the details on the set pieces are very impressive, and I love how Beatrice wears trousers, as opposed to Hero’s love for floaty dresses. You tell ‘em, sister Suffragette! Even though it’s not the right time period yet for that kind of wardrobe, strictly speaking! (No really, remember how shocked and appalled the Crawfords were when Sybil showed off her new harem pants on Downton Abbey?) Michelle Terry plays Beatrice as a very affectionate person: she is tactile and warm, and once she and Benedick have confessed their love for each other, there is an easy affection between them that shows that they are comfortable around each other and know each other very well. She playfully steals his scarf, he puts her hands on her hips… It all seems to come naturally. Perhaps it helps that Edward Bennett and Michelle Terry have known each other for many years and even used to date. Apparently their actor friends had a habit of joking that they were destined to play Beatrice and Benedick some day. Ha.
Finally, a quick word on the servants. Margaret is one of Leonato’s maids along with Ursula, who has a great moment when she and Hero are about to trick Beatrice. In the text of the play, Ursula compares fooling Beatrice to angling for fish:
The pleasant’st angling is to see the fish
Cut with her golden oars the silver stream,
And greedily devour the treacherous bait:
So angle we for Beatrice; who even now
Is couched in the woodbine coverture.
Usually these lines are not very memorable (and Ursula a fairly uninteresting character), but this actress, Frances McNamee, speaks the words like she is an overenthusiastic actress in the local theatre group, all exaggerated expressions and hand movements, before breezily chirping: “Fear you not my part of the dialogue.” Laughs all around. A+.
Another interesting choice is to make Barachio one of the footmen in Leonato’s household, not one of Don John’s men. His desire to meddle with Claudio’s engagement now comes from a bitterness rooted in class difference. As he explains his plan to Don John, he resentfully spits on the shoes he is polishing. Later on, when he hears what has happened at the wedding, he becomes angry with Claudio and upset about the news of Hero’s supposed death, which makes sense if you consider the fact that he has probably worked for this household for years. In this interpretation, Barachio was acting out against these smug rich men infiltrating the house, but never actually intended for Hero to get hurt. This emotional connection makes his sudden repentance much more believable and his motivations more interesting.
However, the class differences are much less pronounced than in Love’s Labour’s Lost, to the point where many of my friends exchanged skeptic looks. The interactions between the family and the staff are very informal and in all the party scenes, servants dance with both the family members and the visiting officers. Yes, it is set at christmas and with the end of the war, there would be a feeling of goodwill, but this seems to ignore the reality of the way society worked at the time; sadly, a recurring problem in the production as a whole. The war is glossed over, class issues swept under the rug, and it all ends in a dance with the entire cast. Yes, Hero casts a worried look at Claudio and quickly puts on an unconvincing smile, but it is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment that gets lost in the clean and uncomplicated ending.
War is over.
Perhaps I am being too hard on this production, but after the stellar Love’s Labour’s Lost, I was very disappointed in how this play turned out. As a big Much Ado fan, I pay close attention to the details and those more often fell flat than not. Yes, it was a fun night out, but it was much more mediocre than it should have been. With these production values, this cast, and proof that the people involved know what they’re doing, there were too many things that do not work and do not make sense.
Where Love’s Labour’s Lost used the time period to its advantage, Much Ado was actually much worse off. It seems that in this case, the makers were so focussed on set design and visual gags that they forgot to consider whether this setting would actually work with the text.
Note: In the 2014 Globe Production (available on DVD), Philip Cumbus actually uses the past war to shape his interpretation of the character of Claudio. He no longer knows how to act around Hero because the last time he saw her, he looked upon her “with a soldier’s eye.” This Claudio has spent so much time training for battle in the company of other men that he cannot remember how to behave in polite society, with women present. Around Benedick and Pedro he is relaxed and confident, but he freezes the second Hero enters the room. At one point, he draws his sword in the heat of the moment, blinks at it, and then hurriedly puts it away again once he realises what he has done. Suddenly his actions become a lot more understandable: this Claudio does not know how to do romance and women because the tongue of war and masculine comradery is the only language he speaks. Now there’s subtlety for you. Philip Cumbus: the unsung hero of the Globe.