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Much Ado

It’ll be a week or so before I blog again.  My PhD graduation is coming up next week, family and friends are flying in, and there is a lot of celebrating to do!  So I will leave you (for a time) with these reflections on my very favorite play.

The first time I saw the Kenneth Branagh film version of Much Ado About Nothing, I couldn’t have been more than 10 or 11 years old.  Why, at that age, an Elizabethan farce about cuckoldry should have captivated me remains unclear, but probably says a lot about me.

Actually I can still remember the things I loved about it: chief up there at that age was the hilarious bit of comic staging when the rest of the cast try to entrap Benedick and Beatrice into admitting their love for one another.  That bit with Kenneth Branagh assiduously failing to operate a lawn chair, then falling over, still makes me laugh aloud just remembering it.

Equally, though I couldn’t follow every intricate motion of her character’s wit, there was a very strong sense of Beatrice’s intelligence and, very important for an impressionable young lady, the value other characters placed on those qualities in her.  Emma Thomson, of course, played that role with both the fire and the lyrical quality of soul needed.  From her I learned that it is not only the classic Hero types who can find a bit of romance—and in fact, the performance of Beatrice necessarily has more depth than her sweetly milquetoast cousin.

Though I know there are plenty of people out there prepared to swear up and down that Branagh is on a one-man mission to destroy the entirety of the Shakesperian canon, there will always be a special place in my heart for Much Ado.

Which is why, despite my very great excitement, I was also nervous about seeing Catherine Tate and David Tennant in the starring roles at Wyndham’s Theatre on Monday.  I was able to score tickets through a lottery scheme they run every day, with 20 best-price seats available for £10.  Part of me was thinking, “What could be more sublime than a wonderful show at a wonderful price?” while another part thought, “But it doesn’t have EMMA.”

The anticipation won out in the end, and oh how right it was.  The energy between Benedick and Beatrice crackles.  Here are two people thinking they’ve grown comfortable in their lives, and thinking they’ve grown comfortable in their mutually antagonistic relationship with each other, only to discover through some fortuitous meddling that in fact love has been quietly growing unnoticed between them just waiting for the chance to jump the fence and cause havoc.

By far the most effective moment in this production is Benedick’s ecstatic “Love me! … Why?” In the text the Why is an interjection in the line “Why, it must be requited” rather than a question, but voiced so Tennant gives an earnest humility to his initially cynical and cocksure Benedick that acts like a sudden ray of sunshine through a dark cloud: in that brief moment his character is made much clearer.

Though Tate and Tennant share many strong moments on stage together, I felt the most revealing elements for Beatrice were in an early scene with the prince Don Pedro, where he almost offhandedly proposes marriage.  After all the talk of the prince possibly offering his hand to young Hero (when it turns out he’s been wooing in Claudio’s stead all along), this is a tense moment in front of Beatrice’s uncle Leonato.  Who, in spite of this, comes to her rescue and gives her an excuse to flee.  Tate plays the wisecracks in this particular scene as bursts of nervousness that she can’t stop in spite of herself, interspersed with the serious lines where she tries to show the poor Don Pedro that she’s not laughing at him.  It is in this contrast that she is at her most sublime.

In this production more than others I’ve seen I was struck by the character of Don Pedro, matchmaker for all but himself.  Spurned, even, despite being a prince.  There he stands at the end of the play, a bit apart watching the happiness of the two couples he helped coax into each other’s arms.  Rue mixed in with the joy.  But I suppose a play that tied up all ends and left all answers satisfied leaves no room for us to dream on the characters’ behalf.  Will Don Pedro be left the only bachelor of three-score?  Or is there a quick-tongued lady out there anticipating the moment their lives collide?  Were you a playwright, what would you choose for him?

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