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Much Ado About Nothing

"Much Ado About Nothing" Movie - Nationalpost.com Review

Friday 5 July 2013, by Webmaster

Speaking Shakespeare: Joss Whedon’s Much Ado reveals the secret to making the Bard’s lines sound modern

One of the great things — actually the greatest thing — about Joss Whedon’s film of Much Ado About Nothing is how natural it sounds. All the reviews have enthused about the capacity of a group of youngish Hollywood actors, not best-known for their classical expertise, to get their tongues around Shakespeare’s language with a minimum of apparent effort, and the maximum of point, wit and flavour. Up here, we can get quite complacent about our overall competence in these matters. I’ve been saying for years that the relative permanence and stability of our companies at Stratford have long left standards in the U.K. in the dust. The theatrical ecology in Britain, not least at National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company level, is hand-to-mouth. As for America: It is to laugh. Or so we patronizingly thought.

It turns out one very good way to practise is to do what Whedon did: Have regular Shakespeare-reading sessions with your chums and colleagues. Then, if you’re happy with the results and want to share them, make a movie.

Something rather similar was done 20 years ago in New York with another classic playwright; the director Andre Gregory, and a group of high-powered buddies including Julianne Moore and Wallace Shawn, met periodically to rehearse Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya; then Louis Malle came in and filmed them doing it. The result was Vanya on 42nd Street, a magical movie that started with the performers clutching their coffee cups while greeting one another and then, before we even had time to notice, moved into one of the most searching performances of Chekhov anyone could remember. The actors really inhabited the play.

Whedon’s actors inhabit their play, too, in a rather literal way. More than any other Shakespeare comedy, even Twelfth Night, Much Ado is solidly set in and around a single house. Whedon’s own California mansion does excellent duty for the governor’s house in Messina, a hospitable place in a near-permanent state of party. That sense of location, deliciously explored in the movie, is one of two great gifts that Shakespeare’s text hands to a modern-dress interpreter. The other is that a huge proportion of the play, including all the best bits both comic and dramatic, is in prose. In fact, the only character handed testing chunks of verse is the governor himself, Leonato; and Clark Gregg, though looking young for the role, handles them and the whole role splendidly. But Benedick and Beatrice, the two people who make the play go, speak hardly a line of verse between them.

Part of the genius of Shakespeare’s verse is the way its apparently artificial form captures actual speech rhythms. The prose, though, consists of actual speech rhythms: the rhythms of its own day, obviously, but also, by some magical coincidence, of ours. And, it seems, of every age in between. Whedon’s leading players are hardly the first to prompt comparisons with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. Alexis Denisof’s Benedick is, in truth, a little heavy-going, but his heart and mind are in the right place; Amy Acker’s Beatrice, whether playing happiness or heartbreak or both together, is superb, finding the soul and the shape of every sentence, making them sound like classic screwball, classic sitcom, classic Shakespeare, all at once. Down among the constabulary, I initially thought Nathan Fillion’s security officer Dogberry too low-key. But he grew on me, hilariously; if he played down the malapropisms, he precisely hit the innocent self-importance.

Every generation has to find its own way into the great scripts. Shakespeare, especially in his prose (“the greatest prose writer of the age of Shakespeare” said T.S. Eliot “was Shakespeare”) can make the task both daunting and incredibly easy. There are stream-of-consciousness passages in the two parts of Henry IV — slow with Justices Shallow and Silence; fast, obviously, with Mistress Quickly — that are like nothing else in English drama until you get to Pinter; Shakespeare seems to have been waiting for us. It’s amazing too, how any actor of Shylock, Jewish or Gentile, finds the lines slipping naturally into modern Jewish cadences. It’s as if our life is imitating his art. Handout

As for what’s going on in England: I used to think that the new cockney — estuary, East End, call it what you like, it’s now a generalized British rather than London accent — was hopeless for Shakespeare, not because of its class associations (though the classlessness of North American and especially Canadian English is a blessing in these plays) but because it was ugly and sloppy and slid tunelessly and tonelessly over both the shape and the meaning of the words.

That can still happen, and too often does. But Rory Kinnear’s Hamlet at the National Theatre a couple of years ago proved that it can work magnificently in Shakespeare. Kinnear is the son of Roy Kinnear, rotund comedian of a hundred Carry On movies; using his own undoctored voice he was magnificently supple, magnificently agile, witty, intelligent and vulnerable; he was indeed, I realized with something of a shock, the first Hamlet ever to move me emotionally as much as he did intellectually.

Currently (and coming in September to a movie theatre near you, courtesy of NT Live) he’s playing Iago in Othello: a role more obviously amenable to tough-guy diction, and one in which he brilliantly explores the character’s corrosive feelings of inferiority along with the impervious practicality that leads everyone to take him for “honest.” His central duets with the Othello of Adrian Lester, improved beyond measure since his callow Henry V of 10 years ago, achieve a rare level of contact, with the script and with one another.

Like Whedon’s Much Ado, this is a detailed, modern-dress production, one in which the sights and sounds of a military occupation are meticulously captured. Both productions might count as site-specific Shakespeare, though in the case of Nicholas Hytner’s Othello, the site has been constructed on a stage. The wide open space of the National’s Olivier Theatre contracts for the final scene in Desdemona’s bedchamber, which for once actually feels like a bedroom: An intimate space into which the tragedy’s victims, perpetrators and spectators are incongruously huddled. The tension is extraordinary.

It isn’t the only way to do Shakespeare. At the Stratford Festival, Tim Carroll’s “original practices” (in quotes, because the term is inexact) production of Romeo and Juliet is aggressively unlocalized, but still creates a world onstage: Even, in the helter-skelter scenes in the Capulet household, a domestic one. It does so because the actors — not all of them, but most — are able to make the words live: the story looks Elizabethan but sounds modern or, if you prefer, timeless.The average standard is actually higher than in the NT’s Othello, in which most of the supporting performances are dull. Or maybe I’m reacting against them because they aren’t the English actors I grew up on. Michael Pennington would disagree with me. He’s a unique combination of star actor, fine writer, and first-rate if uncredentialed Shakespeare scholar; in a recent and indispensable book called Sweet William, which has illuminating and sometimes revelatory things to say about all the plays, he writes: “Today’s young actors who, whatever you may have been told, have an aspiration for classical work identical with ours, are an inspiring group — passionately engaged, resourceful, extremely talented and hard-working — in whose hands the future can confidently be left.”

I’ve heard less exuberant assessments from British teachers and directors; it isn’t the talent they doubt, it’s the training or the lack of it. Successful practice really does come down to having the chance to practise. It can happen in the least expected places. Like at Joss Whedon’s house.