Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Much Ado about Nothing

I’m no Noah Millman, but I have something to say about a Shakespeare performance.

Last Friday I saw Much Ado about Nothing at the Globe — or Shakespeare’s Globe, as they insist on calling it — and while I had a wonderful time indeed, I was reminded of an elementary and vital truth about Shakespearean performance: Everything costs.

The keynote of performances at the Globe since its origin, fifteen years ago, is engagement with the audience. On the theory — a pretty good theory, all in all — that the theater in Shakespeare’s time was a boisterous place, with rowdy groundlings hooting and hissing and drinking and pissing while their social betters assumed seats above, the Globe’s actors play to the crowd. They begin with musical entertainment and end with all the actors dancing together. (We hear that this was universal in Shakespeare’s time, but I am quite unable to imagine Lear and Cordelia popping up off the stage floor and jigging about the stage. Doesn't mean it didn’t happen, though.)

In this performance Eve Best, as a delightfully manic and warm-hearted Beatrice, was almost constantly engaged with the audience, sticking with her lines but regularly conversing in dumb-show gestures with someone who shouted from the upper deck and with various groundlings — including one whose hand she begged so that she might kiss it, as though it were Benedick’s hand. Charles Edwards was more restrained as Benedick, with a slightly pompous air: especially memorable was the scene in which he imagines what kind of woman might gain his favor (“Rich she must be; that’s certain”). He assumed a jaunty pose at the edge of the stage and meditatively sipped a summery drink through a tiny straw. There was also a lot of funny stage business — too much for my taste: Paul Hunter as Dogberry reminded me of nothing so much as a refugee from the Benny Hill Show.

There's therefore something to Michael Billington’s complaint that the show “contains more mugging than you'll find in Central Park on a Saturday night” — and yet as soon as I quote that I think it’s unfair, because it was an absolutely delightful evening.

And yet again — you see I’m going back and forth here — and yet again: this delight was costly, something that was clearly evident at one of the crucial moments of the play. When Claudio has denounced Hero, and Benedick has stayed behind to console Beatrice, and they have (somehow, inexplicably, and yet fittingly) confessed their love for each other, Benedick cries, “Come, bid me do anything for thee.” And Beatrice replies: “Kill Claudio.” It is an absolutely bone-chilling sentence — and yet in this performance the audience laughed. I do not blame them: they had to laugh, in a sense, because everything that had gone before had primed them to see this play as the merest frolic.

In contrast, consider the version of the play that most people will know, the Branagh and Thompson vehicle from 1993: there Emma Thompson’s “Kill Claudio” is utterly believable — but believable in part because her whole portrayal of Beatrice has been slightly subdued, even a touch melancholy. You believe her when she says “Kill Claudio,” but that’s because you don't completely believe Leonato when he says, earlier, “There's little of the melancholy element in her, my lord: she is never sad but when she sleeps, and not ever sad then; for I have heard my daughter say, she hath often dreamed of unhappiness and waked herself with laughing.” That sentence perfectly suits Eve Best’s Beatrice; but for that very reason, and also because the whole Globe performance is built around her festival merriness, it is hard for the audience to descend to the depths of bitterness that she reaches in that scene with Benedick: “O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market-place.”

Shakespeare’s plays are meant for the stage, they live fully there and there only; but no one performance captures the whole of any one play — or even one character, if he or she is one of the major ones, like Beatrice. This is why each play deserves to be performed over and over and over again.

2 comments:

  • I played Beatrice in a production of Much Ado several years ago. The Branagh/Thompson version was my main exposure to the play, and so I had always thought of the "Kill Claudio" line as a desperately serious one. Imagine my surprise when, in every single performance, our audience laughed. We played the Hero-denouncing scene with great intensity; our audience was on the edge of their seat holding their breath; they were perfectly primed to take that line seriously. But they didn't.

    I've thought a lot about this and I think that perhaps Shakespeare meant the audience to laugh. The Branagh movie anchors the line with very ominous music, but without that it boils down to Beatrice responding to a declaration of love by asking her lover to kill his best friend. It doesn't take much for that to sound ridiculous. As badly as Claudio has behaved, that's still a pretty "out there" request, and I think the laughter response is as much one of shock as it is amusement.

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I'm always interested in hearing how Shakespeare is performed!

  • Michael Straight said...

    I think it's fine for the audience to laugh at the "Kill Claudio" line, to be, with Benedick, trying to laugh off her crazy talk. "O God, that I were a man!" is where Benedick starts sputtering and can be played as the moment when he starts to think, "Wait? She's serious?"

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