Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Much ado, Much Ado

It is always easy to denigrate Shakespeare's comedies as distinctly uncomic, and if we're talking about Measure for Measure, I'd probably agree. A lot of the difficulty arises from text vs staging - what is funny on the stage is not necessarily funny on the page, and it can require a thoughtful production to create this. Nicholas Hytner's Much Ado About Nothing at the National Theatre has laughs to spare.

Starring the best actor of his generation, Simon Russell Beale, as an arch Benedick, and the fine comic actress Zoe Wanamaker as Beatrice, the sparks which fly are less sharp, more heartfelt and heartsore. Their former amour convincingly underlies their duelling, and these two actors can hit every note required, imbuing sadness as well as scorn. Their lines are not emptily barbed, nor the actors unaware.

Hero (Susannah Fielding) and Claudio (Daniel Hawksford) are expectedly annoying as the supposedly principal lovers and it is Shakespeare's cunning plotting that makes them interesting at all. The irony of having the lovers plot to entrap Beatrice and Benedick even as Don John entraps them is pure Shakespearean dramatic sophistication, adding interest as well as understanding.

Not that I go to the theatre to have my ideas reinforced - I'm all for a challenging evening - but I certainly felt about Much Ado as I did about the far more insistently verbal and punning Love's Labours Lost. Shakespeare uses wit as a front - whoever is jesting with rich puns is inevitably false, hiding their emotions or creating an unreal world. Just as in LLL, the jokes stop when reality invades and Beatrice and Benedick admit their feelings. As Benedick puts it,

Thou hast frighted the word out of his right sense, so forcible is they wit.

Hytner has a terrific go at evoking what humour there is, with a beautifully simple yet multifaceted set (by Vicki Mortimer), more like a Chinese terrace than a Sicilian garden. Having Beatrice and Benedick - played by statuesque actors - hiding behind thin wooden supports is a guaranteed laugh, and the inventive use of a pool brings the house down (not literally, alas). While there would certainly be humour without staging, Much Ado would not be nearly as funny without Hytner's imagination.

Finally, a small note on the 'Was Shakespeare a Catholic?' question. When Hero and Claudio are about to be married, Leonato begins the scene by saying:

Come, Friar Francis, be brief; only the plain form of marriage, and you shall recount their particular duties afterwards.

Much more Lutheran than Lateran, I feel.

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