Thursday, April 16, 2015

Is Much Ado really Love's Labours Won?

As an interesting sequel to her last post, Frances, our president, discusses the Royal Shakespeare Company's approach to Much Ado about Nothing - or should that be 'Love's Labour's Won'?

What an interesting idea to consider: in a pre-show interview the director, Christopher Luscombe, made a strong case for regarding Much Ado About Nothing as the missing Love’s Labour’s Won and treating it as a sequel to Love’s Labour’s Lost.

We usually expect a sequel to follow the fortunes of characters we met in the earlier story, in much the same setting. Well, Luscombe had already changed Navarre to Warwickshire, so in the second play 'sunny Sicily' was changed to 'chilly England', the action in the same beautiful country house. However, the cast was now playing completely new characters entirely unconnected with the first play. This gave me an additional pleasure: observing the skill and versatility of the performers in their different roles, notably Sam Alexander, who turned from the superbly eccentric Don Adriano to the authoritative and soldierly, but kindly, Don Pedro. The two leads, Edward Bennett and Michelle Terry, moved from their fine portrayals of the youthful Biron and Rosaline to even more admirable performances as the more mature Benedick and Beatrice. Although Love’s Labour’s Lost was the last film I had seen (and therefore fresh in my mind) I accepted these new acquaintances immediately, greatly to the credit of the actors.

The decision to place the action in the immediate post-WW1 period allowed perhaps more than usual emphasis on pathos and the darker aspects of the play. Beatrice’s chatter was less light-hearted and her exchanges with Benedick had an edge suggesting past disappointment or misunderstanding. She frequently evoked a sense of loneliness behind her outward bravado, while Benedick at times appeared at a loss to understand her and their current relationship.

Iqbal Khan's 2012 production with Meera Syal as Beatrice and Amara Karan as Hero. By Ellie Kurttz.
There were nevertheless some lovely comic scenes, particularly the gulling of Benedick, when he performed amazing contortions behind the window curtains, and survived a near-electrocution in the Christmas tree. Another gloriously funny scene was performed in solemn silence, as the sexton tried to leave Dogberry’s kitchen, but found himself hemmed in by people, furniture and assorted domestic paraphernalia while everyone milled about trying to clear the way. The gulling of Beatrice was treated far more seriously with her listening at the window of a high tower. I thought her stillness and sadness (rather than affronted umbrage) contrasted rather too strongly with the actions of Hero and Ursula, who appeared to try a little too hard in their search for the comedy of the scene.

The audience had been told in advance that the characters of Don John and Dogberry were to be understood as resulting from trauma during the war. I found some difficulty with this. Don John’s use of a crutch and his marked limp tended to evoke sympathy and to reduce the impact of his malevolence, but did not give any clearer explanation of his motives. Dogberry was to be seen as suffering PTSD to account for his mis-use of words. My feeling is that comedy allows us to laugh sometimes at things which polite society does not permit in daily life, and that we can enjoy Dogberry’s extraordinary vocabulary just as later generations enjoyed Mrs Malaprop. I see Dogberry as smugly complacent about his own authority and position and entirely happily unaware of his deficiencies. To give him the extra tics and limps of a disastrous war made it difficult for me simply to enjoy his character.

The build-up to Hero’s wedding was charming, with a pretty scene in her bedroom, the girls in negligee and pyjamas, all excitement and warmth. It led nicely into the fine church setting, with stained glass, choir and guests ready for the big moment. However, this scene for me was perhaps the least successful of the play. Claudio needed more fire and shock-power in his denunciation, and the long and vituperative speech of Hero’s father, Leonato, was accompanied by a distinct drop in the high and engaging intensity of the rest of the performance.

Beatrice and Benedick were outstanding in their interaction. Sensitive timing and well-judged emphases and facial expressions drew from their lines every last nuance of thought and feeling. They moved from some sense of disgruntlement at the start to the joyous surrender to mutual love at the end with charm and a lovely balance of fun and seriousness. The conclusion of the play was a warmly and satisfyingly happy one.