We had an odd shelf, built into the wall of the house, which ran the length of the stairwell. It housed books; among them a set of small, leather-bound, gilt-edged copies of Shakespeare’s plays. I was initially fascinated due to the size of the books, but I had also imbibed the notion that Shakespeare was important – God knows how, since I’d never knowingly seen any of my family watch, read, or quote his work. I was quite certain of the necessity of reading these tiny books, and, starting with Romeo and Juliet, read my way through As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, and Much Ado About Nothing. I was 10, and I suspect I only understood half of what I read, but it did inspire me to start writing little cod-Shakespeare plays of my own. Lacking actors (it was hard enough to persuade my cousins to reenact fairy tales with me), these efforts went unperformed, and were sadly lost in one of our many house moves.
Soon after, I first saw Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing and it became my favourite film, not least because Batman was in it (spare me your Christian Bales; there is but one Batman, and his name is Michael Keaton).
Sadly the British education system doesn’t seem to share my fondness for shenanigans, as Much Ado About Nothing never appeared on the syllabus – or if it did no one wanted to teach it. Instead we were exposed to Romeo and Juliet (Zeffirelli), Macbeth (Polanski), and Othello (Branagh, again). In my first year as an undergrad Shakespeare was used to teach us Study Skills, and our whistle-stop tour of the Bard once again excluded my favourite play, in favour of the puckish, cross-gartered shenanigans to be found elsewhere.
I was once lucky enough to see Much Ado About Nothing at the Norwich Playhouse. It was bizarre. Set in the Fin-de-Siècle, with the Prince and his men returning from the Second Boer War, and sadly marred by Benedict’s insistence on shouting his lines at us. The Playhouse is a relatively intimate venue – 300 seats – so it really was overkill.
I had almost forgotten how much I loved the play, until I learned that, in a break from making some little film about comic book superheroes, Joss Whedon had grabbed a bunch of his actor friends and convinced them to spend a couple of weeks filming Much Ado About Nothing at his house.
It’s fairly well-known that Whedon is a Shakespeare fan, regularly inviting friends to join him in reading the plays, and some of the fun comes from the casting as Whedon regulars, such as Alexis Denisof and Nathan Fillion, take on these familiar roles. Sean Maher is quite a revelation as Don Jon, and I enjoyed the decision to cast Riki Lindhome as Conrade without changing the character’s name. I do find myself wishing that J. August Richards or Gina Torres had been available though, as this cast somehow manages to be even whiter than that of its predecessor – I’d expect more representation, not less, given the 20 year gap!
So what is it that so appeals about this play? Firstly, I like that the action is contained; everything happens at an extended house party. Secondly, the misunderstandings that occur are very human: there are no fairies playing tricks, no contrived reasons for cross-dressing, we are simply faced with human manipulation and misunderstandings. Thirdly, I like that we seem to come in part way through; these characters are old friends and acquaintances, and that forces us to pay attention to the language in order to follow their reminiscences, and understand the back story which motivates them. Finally, I like it because it has a lot to say about how society treats women – the importance of virtue, the constant surveillance, the lack of trust in what women say about themselves – which resonates today. And for a play written by a man, over 400 years ago, it holds a remarkably sharp criticism, in Beatrice, of this state of affairs.
As today is (traditionally) the anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth and death, I shall be celebrating by watching Much Ado About Nothing. If I’ve piqued your interest, the Joss Whedon adaptation can be found on Netflix; if not, then I wish you enjoyment in your own celebration of the Bard.