The Brightest Heaven of Invention
The works of William Shakespeare have demonstrated a remarkable ability to traverse the centuries without losing their relevance or effectiveness. More striking than that, is how the Bard’s canon moves through storytelling mediums as well as it does through time. Hundreds of years after his death, Shakespeare’s plays continue to be delivered to audiences through technology that was not even a twinkle in humanity’s eye during the Elizabethan era.
Orson Welles made adaptations of Shakespeare a staple of radio drama in the 1930s, and Laurence Olivier made cinematic versions of the Bard’s work an Oscar-winning enterprise in the 1940s. Franco Zeffirelli made Romeo and Juliet fresh and new for the generation of free love in the late 1960s and Baz Lurhman did the same for the MTV generation in the 1990s. Kenneth Branagh made even the densest Shakespeare text digestible for ordinary audiences with his Henry V and Hamlet. The brilliant visionary Julie Taymor took the Bard’s forgotten tragedy Titus Andronicus out of place and out of time with cinema’s most wildly anachronistic adaptation of Shakespeare, Titus. Modern audiences are able to enjoy podcast performances of the favorite Shakespeare plays on their iTunes as they commute to and from work. The younger generation can even play a videogame based on the characters from Hamlet on their Android or iPhone.
The words of the Bard of Avon are alive and well in an era of storytelling where tales of “sound and fury” filled with incredible imagery and effects have delegated the kind of clever wordplay that Shakespeare embodies to the backseat of dramatic narrative. And yet, one of the vanguards of this bombastic trend of storytelling, Joss Whedon, has taken a respite from his storied career of vampires, spaceships, aliens and superheroes to bring us a great cinematic adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing.
Much Ado About Plotting
Much Ado is like a blueprint for all romantic comedies, and the genre follows its template to this day: Two characters who are obviously destined to be together spend the first half of the film bickering. They finally admit to themselves and each other that they love each other, but due to a series of misunderstandings caused by a rich and handsome douchebag, everything goes to hell. After much cringing from the audience, the plot creaks its way to resolution, our two leads end up together and the rich and handsome douche gets what is coming to him. The formula still works like a charm even though everyone knows how it will play out.
A Company of Players
For the majority of his career, Shakespeare relied on a trusted troupe of actors known as the “Lord Chamberlain’s Men” to bring life to his characters.The various players in the troupe would appear in production after production of Shakespeare’s plays, playing dozens of characters. With the cast of Much Ado, Whedon has demonstrated that he has created a troupe of actors as loyal and familiar as Shakespeare’s. Fans of Whedon’s works such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and The Avengers will recognize almost all of the faces here and it’s clear that this is a family of performers who were most likely paid nothing more for their appearance here than the pleasure of working with old friends. It works well for a play like Much Ado, whose dramatis personae is populated by a tight-knit community of cousins, comrades and co-conspirators who have a long history together.
Where We Lay our Scene
The production was filmed at Whedon’s personal home, which makes the world of the story seem real and comfortable. It must have been a challenge filming without the flexibility of a soundstage, as evidenced by the tremendous number of electrical technicians credited for this film. As the story plays out, you begin to feel like a guest at the Don’s home, enjoying the long string of parties and after-parties that make up the bulk of the plot.
Unlike many modern or anachronistic productions of Shakespeare, this production doesn’t beat you over the head with the fact that the words don’t match the setting like in Lurhman’s Romeo + Juliet or the Ethan Hawke Hamlet. There are a couple of nice moments that acknowledge the disconnect, like when letters or other correspondence appear as text messages, or guns fill in for swords, but that’s not the point of the exercise. It also avoids some of the staginess of more traditionalist interpretations of Shakespeare’s works like Olivier’s films. This never seems like a film of a play. It always feels like a film. I’m not sure exactly what the choice was to film in black and white. Maybe there is a color scheme in Whedon’s decor that doesn’t match the setting of the story. Although there is nothing in Whedon’s interpretation that dictates the film needs be in black and white, it works here.
Words, Words, Words
The key to helping a modern audience understand Shakespeare’s language is to make sure that the actors understand what they are saying. The poetry is beautiful in its own right, but the intention and meaning behind the words are what make the plays great. So many modern performances of Shakespeare fall flat because the actor’s don’t seem to know what the hell they’re talking about. Despite a strong cast of supporting players, Lurhman’s Romeo + Juliet never escapes the realm of eye candy because the two leads seem hopelessly adrift in the text. Kenneth Branagh’s production of Much Ado is fantastic, but suffers whenever Keanu Reeves is onscreen because he clearly can’t handle lines more complex than “Whoa” or “Excellent!” Whedon is not dealing with Ian McKellan or Patrick Stewart here, but there are very few weak links in the cast. The two leads are fantastic, and the rest of the cast provides excellent support.
The songs play well with Shakespeare’s lyrics, to the point that the people I saw the film with weren’t even sure they were from the play. Whenever 400-year-old words don’t seem out of place in a modern time, that’s a really good sign the director is doing something right.
The Undiscovered Country
While Joss Whedon’s reputation is that of a sci-fi/fantasy genre director, he has displayed an impressive knack for the classics. This film could very well have ended up a high-profile version of the drama club school play—something that’s only fun for those involved. Instead we have received an adaptation of Shakespeare refreshingly devoid of pretense or self-importance that is also fun and accessible. The real question is, what’s next? Whedon is already directing the second Avengers film and most likely has his pick of plum projects going forward.
Why not combine his skill at staging genre epics with his ability to shake up Shakespeare? Forbidden Planet, the sci-fi classic loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest demonstrated that the Bard’s stories work even in a futuristic setting. I’d love to see a sci-fi version of the battle of Agincort with a lightsaber-weilding Henry V jet packing around calling out “Once more onto the breach dear friends!” Why not stage a production of Hamlet on a lonely moon base? How about a Midsummer Night’s Dream where a bunch of kids beam down to a fantastic alien planet called Arden? How about a version of Macbeth in a post-apocalyptic wasteland of murderous warlords? Sounds crazy? So does a black and white production of Shakespeare directed by the guy who made Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But hey, it works.