Monday, April 8, 2013

Much Ado About Nothing and Romantic Comedy

Maggie Siff and Jonathan Cake in Much Ado About Nothing, at the Duke on 42nd Street (Photo: Richard Perry)

Ben Jonson wrote satirical comedies, Shakespeare romantic ones – and then, later in his career, the two plays that scholars have categorized as problem comedies, Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well. Of his romantic comedies, Twelfth Night runs deepest, but Much Ado About Nothing has been the most influential. Almost the entire history of Hollywood romantic comedy, beginning with the first screwball comedy, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, in 1934, flows from its font. These movies were the consequence of the newly enforced Production Code, which forbade the hero and heroine of a romance to jump in bed together before marriage without tragic consequences (invariably for the woman). The Hays Code office, as it was popularly known, sought to neuter romance, but screwball comedy came up with a formula that kept it sexy as well as witty. The protagonists begin as adversaries – like Peter Warne (Clark Gable) and Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) in It Happened One Night – distanced by both class and temperament, yet we can feel the sexual chemistry between them. Each has to learn to get past first impressions as well as to compromise, to come halfway toward the other. Their reward is a happy ending in each other’s arms, when, to use screenwriter Robert Riskin’s metaphor in Capra’s picture, the Walls of Jericho (blankets on a clothesline) erected to keep them discreetly separate from each other in a series of motel rooms come down after the hero and heroine are safely wed.

Riskin and every subsequent screenwriter who has followed this set of romantic-comedy conventions borrowed it from Much Ado About Nothing. Beatrice and Benedick, once sweethearts (Beatrice makes a single allusion to their past, in a casual comment to Benedick’s friend Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon) and now sparring partners, can’t converse without trading insults. Her Uncle Leonato calls their relationship a “merry war”; the proportion of merriment to actual anger varies according to the production. It’s Don Pedro who hatches a plot to bring them together – a joke to call Benedick on his vociferous disdain for marriage. The third member of their triumvirate, young Count Claudio, is eager to take part and pay Benedick back for witticisms at Claudio’s expense since he fell in love with Leonato’s daughter Hero. What both Benedick’s friends and Beatrice’s realize – as must the audience – is that they are an ideal match and that they’d realize it too if they could just sweep their biases out of the way. So the men (including Leonato) stage a confab where they know he’ll overhear them in which they speak with surprise of Beatrice’s love for Benedick, and the women (including Hero) convey the same information to her about him.

Jonathan Cake and Matthew Amendt (Photo by Henry Grossman)
The protagonists are among Shakespeare’s most delightful creations. It’s a marvelous comedy, and you can see all the elements that make it so in Arin Arbus’s festive production for Theatre for a New Audience at the Duke on 42nd Street. The British actor Jonathan Cake gives a blissfully relaxed performance as Benedick opposite the tall, stunning American actress Maggie Siff as a tart, somewhat bristling Beatrice – a Beatrice for contemporary audiences, impatient and a little vulnerable. (Siff stops short of bitterness, however; that would be a mistake.) Arbus has encouraged these two to take their time, so their exchanges have the luxuriant in-the-moment feel of sketch comedy where a pair of comics who have been collaborating for years allow themselves to groove off each other’s improvisation. Siff doesn’t pause for the poetry, as I’ve seen other Beatrices do. (The first one I ever saw was Judi Dench, more than three and a half decades ago, in a Royal Shakespeare Company Much Ado, and I can still hear the musical phrasing she lent to her response to the Prince’s suggestion that she must have been brought into the world in “a merry hour”:  “No, sure, my lord, my mother cried; but then there was a star danced, and under that was I born.”) But the way Cake, with his classical training, lives in the rhythm of Shakespeare’s language while she executes it in a no-nonsense Yankee style accentuates the division between the two characters and raises the stakes for their coming together.
The play begins with the joyous homecoming of the men, who have been at war; in Kenneth Branagh’s ebullient 1993 movie version (where he and Emma Thompson play the lovers), the opening beat is a long preparation for the celebratory feast, both sexes stripping down to bathe and taking pains to dress in their finest – so that, we understand, they can eventually strip down again, this time for lovemaking. In any romantic comedy the comic force that eventually overcomes all obstacles is implicitly erotic (A Midsummer Night’s Dream makes this idea explicit), and the fact that the men arriving en masse are soldiers who have been deprived of female company heightens the sexual tension. Don Pedro (Graham Winton), Benedick and Claudio (Matthew Amendt) are comrades-in-arms; when they arrive at Leonato’s, the Prince offers to woo Hero (Michelle Beck) for Claudio at the masked ball Leonato (Robert Langdon Lloyd) has planned for their amusement. Claudio is callow and immature; when the Prince’s bastard brother Don John (Saxon Palmer) tells him that Don Pedro has been courting Hero for himself, Claudio is quick to believe him, though experience should have taught him that his friend is completely trustworthy. The ball scene ends joyfully, with Don Pedro presenting Hero to the astonished Claudio, but the villainous Don John knows that he has found a perfect target in Claudio. He arranges for his friend Borachio (Paul Niebanck), who has gained access to the bed of Hero’s gentlewoman Margaret (Kate MacCluggage), to appear at her window and call her by Hero’s name while Claudio and the Prince are watching below. This deception is sufficient to cause Claudio to reject Hero at the altar the next day and shame her publicly.
Don John is the anti-comic force that, in all of these romantic comedies, must be removed and always is, handily and without too much difficulty, to facilitate the happy ending. Claudio behaves badly (and the Prince not much better), and in order to prove his love for Beatrice, Benedick – who is sympathetic to Hero and startled by his friends’ behavior – allies himself with her and even challenges Claudio to a duel.  Fortunately he never has to make good on that challenge because Don John’s treachery is discovered quickly and the two men who have humiliated Hero are earnest in doing penance. Claudio’s treatment of Hero isn’t meant to unbalance the comedy; it’s not on a level with Othello’s jealousy of Desdemona (tragedy) or Leontes’ jealousy of Hermione in The Winter’s Tale (tragicomedy). But Arbus tries to give it more emotional weight than it will bear – a mistake that contemporary directors are drawn to make – and though Amendt is very good as Claudio, the extra push unmoors Beck’s performance as Hero.

Graham Winton as Don Pedro. (Photo: Henry Grossman)
On the other hand, the immensely skillful Graham Winton goes for a kind of romantic disappointment in Don Pedro that the text absolutely allows, though few actors have essayed it. He’s so charmed with Beatrice’s wit and buoyant humor that, on the spur of the moment, he proposes to her, but she’s quick to turn him down. The explanation she offers, quite a reasonable one, is “No, my lord, unless I might have another for working-days: your Grace is too costly to wear every day” – and in every other production I’ve seen the Prince takes her reply in the lighthearted spirit in which it’s given. Winton’s Don Pedro is taken aback; he takes a beat to recover, and bon vivant though he is, a whiff of melancholy hovers about him in the last scene when he’s the only one of the three buddies who doesn’t wind up with a lady on his arm. (Full disclosure: Graham Winton is an old friend.)

The tip-top cast also includes the veteran character actor John Christopher Lloyd as the hilariously dull-brained, malapropping constable Dogberry (who saves the day), John Keating as his second-in-command Verges, and Peter Maloney as Leonato’s brother Antonio, who joins forces with him to waylay Claudio and the Prince after they have ill-treated Hero. This is a touching scene, not much like anything else in Shakespeare’s romantic comedies, where two senior men demonstrate their nerve, though Shakespeare doesn’t linger on it – he brings Dogberry in immediately with Don John’s co-conspirators, Borachio and Conrade (Dennis Butkus), in tow to provide the evidence of Hero’s innocence. Lloyd and Maloney play it very sweetly. And it’s worth singling out Saxon Palmer, who gives an inventive and surprisingly comic performance as Don John, one of the trickiest villain roles Shakespeare ever created. I’ve seen very few actors pull it off, though Keanu Reeves managed to in the Branagh movie by sheer dint of his physicality: he gave the character a sensual dimension. Palmer goes in the opposite direction – he makes Don John awkward, ill at ease in his own skin. It turns out that both approaches work.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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