[ATTENDED: November 14, 2013] Much Ado About Nothing
Despite all of my reading, I am fairly ignorant of Shakespeare. I’ve read or seen most of the big ones, but I don’t know a lot of his works first hand. As a young reader I realized that reading Shakespeare was hard—as, really, any play with dozens of characters tends to be. It’s not easy to keep character straight when there are no descriptors about them. So I more or less gave up on reading Shakespeare and decided I would watch him when I could.
When the Princeton University theater offered us tickets to see Much Ado About Nothing, it seemed a great opportunity to brush up.
This was a student production, and I have to complement all of the students on their wonderful performances. They never broke characters, and their Shakespearean dialogue was flawless (as far as I know). What I found interesting was that it took about fifteen minutes before I was absorbed in the dialogue and understood, well, about 45% of it. Well, maybe 60%. They did speak a little fast sometimes.
What was incredibly helpful about the dialogue was…the actors. Duh. But really, the language comes to life when you see people actually performing the lines (making Shakespeare’s bawdy jokes that much more bawdy). And while some of the performances seemed almost over the top, I have little doubt that that is how it was performed back in the day—why would they go for subtle when there’s jokes about sex?
The director, Lileana Blain-Cruz, had an interesting take on the play. The only setting was a field of flowers, which was strewn with dirt (making me think that everyone must have had their sinuses full of dirt by the end of the show). But it was very effective, as the dust was an excellent addition to the drama.
But more interesting was her decision to set the play in contemporary times. The opening scene saw the three female characters hanging around in casual clothes with Beatrice drinking a Corona. And later when Benedick is shown working out and lifts his shirt as she mentions his stomach (in terms of food, not sex–a very funny twist).
The time of the story is really thrown into prominence when the party scene occurs soon thereafter. The musical choice was contemporary dance (at one point Kanye West). And I loved the way the music was at first a kind of slow grind while the actors quickly got into place performing slow-grind appropriate (but family inappropriate) dancing. And then when the song kicked into high fast gear the dancing was even more frenetic (and vulgar). I noticed that a family with a 7 or 8-year-old girl did not return after intermission (which was just as well given that the blow up doll that surfaced earlier was given a rather large appendage for the second act). My favorite modern wardrobe choices were the T-shirts that the guys wore during the “bachelor party”—shirts no doubt straight from the Jersey Shore like the “Beer fuck yeah” T-shirt and a cowboy hat made from a Coors cardboard case.
But the most striking thing about the play to me was the way the director emphasized the inequities of women. I hadn’t read that this was meant to be a different take on the play. I knew this was a comedy and I was surprised at the way there were many moments that not only weren’t funny but were actually very dark.
And it really highlighted some of the inequities of the time. Like the way Hero’s life is ruined by the claim from two men that she is no longer a virgin. And the director made that sequence—with her nearly dying at the news–dramatic and over the top. But it was also very uncomfortable—the vehemence with which Hero’s father wishes that she were dead (actual words from Shakespeare but given especially dramatic context here), and the way the other women look at the men was powerful and unsettling.
But the most unsettling moment was the end of the play. At the end, everyone is happy and married off (it is a Shakespeare comedy after all), but the director changed the ending very subtly. The ending dance, rather than a mirth-filled romp, slows into a dirge with the newly betrothed women looking forlornly at each other and the audience. For a very uncomfortable three or four minutes. It was a confusing moment if you were expecting a comedy. And many people on the way out said they didn’t get the ending.
It turned out we ran into two of the player in the Wawa after the show and (in addition to telling them how good they were (they were very good)), I asked about the ending. And it was as I suspected, an attempt by the director to show that these women could not possibly be happy after the triumph of the wedding. Just a short time before, Hero’s new husband left her for dead because he thought she slept with someone else and yet now a few days later after being publicly humiliated, she marries him? And the Beatrice and Benedick romance is based entirely on them being tricked into professing their love for each other. Great for a slight romance, but not an excellent foundation of marriage.
I wish I had known about the dark twist in the show ahead of time, but it was really interesting not knowing that that was going to happen, because, as promised (when I read the write up after the show) it was a real emotional roller coaster ride.
The only problems I had with the play, and I feel that they are more Shakespeare’s than this performance’s were these two. I found it very difficult in the beginning telling who was whom. Individuals are never addressed by name, being only My Lady or My Lord, and so for the first maybe 20 minutes of the play I wasn’t sure which of the women the men were talking about. (This may have been more apparent if they were in traditional garb, possibly). The second was the motivation of Don John, the bastard. He is the one who sets all of the trouble in motion, but his motivation for doing so is shockingly unclear.
I did some research afterwards and there are two minds. One: it was meant to be unclear because this is a comedy not a tragedy, and he was not essential to the conclusion of the story. Hmm, maybe, okay. Two: since he is known to be a bastard, and since parentage was so important, he is simply living out what is expected of him as a less than pure child. There may be a personal vendetta here, but he’s basically just a bad guy. Either way, I don’t know that there’s much that could be done there in this version of the play without an introduction. It was a little extra confusing that this character was played by a woman. But only because I know that Shakespeare has played with gender identities in the past, and I wasn’t sure if we were supposed to find out that Don John was actually in love with Hero or what. It was all irrelevant in the end, but it was one of those moments where I had to wonder if there was a “reason” for the choice.
Otherwise, I was cultured and entertained. And I’m curious to compare it to Joss Whedon’s film when that comes out.