Most of the updating to a modern setting worked. But not quite all.
Although I was very keen to see Much Ado About Nothing, I wasn’t sure how much I would like it, since I couldn’t really envisage Amy Acker in the part of Beatrice, and I was only so-so on the idea of Alexis Denisof as Benedick. But I actually really enjoyed her performance: aside from a couple of not-very-funny pratfalls, she really made me believe in the character. He was good as well, but I truly believe that Beatrice is much the more difficult part. In every production I have seen – and there have been some real dogs! – Benedick always manages to get laughs in his two soliloquy scenes, but Beatrice is much harder to get right. My favourite actors in the roles would still be Emma Thompson/Kenneth Branagh (film) and Pamela Rabe/John Howard (stage) – with an honourable mention to Sarah Parish/Damian Lewis in Shakespeare Re-told (I would love to see them do the play properly) – but Acker and Denisof were far from disappointing.
Though oddly enough, the one scene that didn’t quite work for me – and I can’t put my finger on why – was the post-wedding ‘Kill Claudio’ scene. Somehow, the emotional range just didn’t quite seem to be there.
Aside from them, the rest of the cast were good, but not outstanding. I liked Hero, and although Claudio didn’t really convince me as being a decent human being, that is always going to be a challenge with this play. Leonato, Ursula and Margaret were all fine. I quite liked Borachio, although I couldn’t really see the point of turning Conrade into a woman (unless it was purely so they could put in a sex scene). Sean Maher made a reasonable Don John, though seeing him as a (clean-shaven) villain gave me flashbacks to his line in Firefly – after being referred to as a criminal mastermind – ‘I’m thinking of growing a big black mustache. I’m a traditionalist.’ I was a bit underwhelmed with Dogberry and Verges, but they’re not really my type of humour, so they need to be done very well for me to find them funny – and cutting some of the better lines didn’t help.
But I think the only real disappointment would be Don Pedro. There was nothing actively wrong with the performance, but he didn’t seem to have any real presence – no sense that the was The Most Important Person In The Room. At times, he was almost overlookable. And while he’s not one of the key protagonists, I think if he ends up sidelined, then the play rather loses it balance.
For the most part, I felt that the modern setting worked very well. Clearly it helped that Joss Whedon has a lovely house and extensive garden! And there were some nice touches. I particularly liked the fact that Leonato having everyone stay at his house meant that (even though it was a large house) he had to put Benedick and Claudio in the room of a (not-appearing-in-the-film) little girl. The look they gave each other as they were shown in was priceless! Since IMDb tells me that Joss Whedon has an 8-year-old daughter, I’m guessing that this room – with its twin beds, soft toys, and dollhouse complete with Barbies – received little to no set dressing for the film. (In the context of the film, I guess it’s best not to ask who the room’s actual owner is – clearly not Leonato’s daughter, since ‘Hero is his only child’, and presumably he wasn’t putting guests in the room of a servant’s child!)
The arrival of the Prince’s men in large cars was less dramatic than the horseback entrance in Branagh’s film, but it was effective in a different way. And I liked the fact that Don John and his people were initially in plastic wrist restraints, which were cut off before they entered the house. The use of a smartphone to show video of Don John’s capture at the end was also a nice touch.
And I don’t think I have ever seen a production quite so awash in alcohol!
But one of the challenges of putting Shakespeare in a modern setting is whether the plot and dialogue actually clash with the surroundings. And I think Much Ado has three key problem areas in this regard:
- The repeated emphasis on Hero’s virginity
- Following from this, Leonato saying it would be better if she were dead
- Benedick agreeing to Beatrice’s demand that he kill Claudio
(I don’t include Claudio’s rejecting Hero at the altar. This can work in a modern setting, if you treat the issue as not so much about virginity, as about having sex with someone the night before she is marrying someone else.)
‘Kill Claudio’ actually did kind of work. It still seemed a bit odd and unrealistic when Beatrice first said it, but when Benedick went back to his room, and got out a gun, I realised that of course (a) this is America, and people do have guns; and, more importantly, (b) they have all just come back from a war, so maybe killing people isn’t really such a foreign concept. And in any case, given Benedick’s initial reaction to Beatrice, I don’t imagine you are really meant to see it as a completely normal action.
But unfortunately, the emphasis on Hero being (or not being) a ‘maid’ did jar, and Leonato’s speech about ‘Do not live, Hero’ was completely unbelievable. Not only was all of this dialogue left in – and I’m sure some of it (especially Leonato’s speech) could have been cut – but it was further emphasised by the scene from the very start of the film in which it was clear that Beatrice, at least, is not a virgin. This created a clash that I found it was quite hard to overcome.
I found it interesting that Joss Whedon decided to place Act V Scene ii (where Benedick tells Beatrice he has challenged Claudio, and which finishes with them hearing the news that ‘Don John is the author of all’) after Act V Scene iii (in which Claudio hangs an epitaph on Hero’s tomb). Kenneth Branagh did the same thing in his film. Maybe it’s an inversion that often happens (like swapping the first two scenes of Twelfth Night), but I don’t think I’ve seen it in any stage production. What bothers me about this change, is that the visit to the tomb happens at night. So Benedick doesn’t go to see Beatrice until the next day, rather than pretty much immediately after challenging Claudio. And yet in the intervening 12+ hours, he’s somehow failed to hear the news – very much out of the information loop. Furthermore, Beatrice was shown with Hero, clearly aware of what was happening, during the night of the tomb visit (I think it was the same in Branagh’s version). So why doesn’t she let Benedick know? Unless she’s so pissed off with Claudio that she wants Benedick to kill him anyway. But that seems rather deceitful (to Benedick), and it isn’t really supported either by the words, or by her demeanour. So I really can’t see any reason for swapping the two scenes around – and plenty of reasons not to!
But in spite of these concerns, I still really enjoyed the film!
Don John casually pinching a cupcake when leaving the wedding.
Though I also liked pretty much every scene set in the room Benedick and Claudio were sharing.
Pass. There are a number of named female characters (one more than in the play, due to Conrade’s gender swap!), they do talk to each other, and it’s not always about a man.