Saturday, June 22, 2013

Theatre For Thought, June 22, 2013

joel fishbane

Back in October, 2011, I wrote about some geeky theatre news that had gotten me hot and bothered: Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the writer / director of The Avengers, had filmed an adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing with some of his friends. At long last the film has arrived in theatres and it’s everything that was promised: a modern day Shakespearian romp filled with members of the Joss Whedon Reparatory Company – actors who Whedon has worked with (often repeatedly) throughout his career. 

The charming cast is the central reason this film adaptation works. Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof and Clark Gregg aren’t exactly household names but this film makes it clear that they should be; at the very least, they should all be doing a lot more Shakespeare in the days to come.  Filmed in 12 days at Whedon’s house, the cast has such fun with the text that it’s almost infectious. Much Ado About Nothing is one of my least favourite of all  Shakespeare’s comedies but it reaches new heights with this cast – and with the adaptation by Whedon, who chops away most of the annoying parts. 

In Whedon’s modern retelling, the setting is the vast estate of Leonato

The story, for those who don’t know, is probably one of the silliest in all of Shakespeare’s canon. Claudio (Fran Kranz)’s marriage to Hero (Jilian Morgese) is nearly thwarted by the mischievous Don John (Sean Maher), for no reason other then he’s bored; meanwhile, Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) gets his friends to conspire to make Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof) fall in love. The result is a mish-mash of comic mistakes and a witty discourse on romance and marriage.

In Whedon’s modern retelling, the setting is the vast estate of Leonato (Clark Gregg) where numerous friends and lovers have gathered for a weekend of debauchery. The fact that everyone is drunk for most of the film provides a logical excuse for the illogical machinations of Shakespeare’s plot. This is farce, after all, and it moves very fast; the gin-soaked atmosphere provides motivation for the impetuous passions of the characters.

The film allows Whedon to expand the story slightly – in his version, this is a comedy of remarriage, with Beatrice and Benedick simply former lovers who need to be reunited. This is a modern twist that at least gives their relationship a little depth and explains why they so easily fall in love with each other at the slightest provocation. 

Whedon also does some clever gender-bending with the role of Conrade, Don John’s confederate - and, in this version, occasional paramour. Actress Riki Lindhomme gives a master class in how to turn a minor part into a major one; traditionally, the role is merely there for exposition but here she is vital to the themes of the play. She helps Don John because she is as lost in love as everyone else. 

Readers of this column will know how much I detest modernization

Shakespearian films tend to draw attention to their own supposedly clever stylistic tricks – see Julie Taymor’s Titus or Baz Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet. Often the films are modernized and great pains are taken to shoehorn the story into the modern world (in Ethan Hawke’s modern Hamlet, for instance, he was heir to the throne of  the Denmark Corporation). Whedon pulls no such tricks here - the modern era surrounds the cast but no one pays much attention to it. Sonnets are still written on paper and when Benedick moons over Beatrice’s portrait, he actually looks at a real picture. 

Readers of this column will know how much I detest modernization and while I still found it unnecessary – the modern setting did little to offer a new look at an old story – it was so unobtrusive that I happily forgave it. Perhaps this, in the end, is the secret to updating Shakespeare. If Shakespeare’s stories truly are universal, then the era will never need to be anything but background.

It’s not a perfect film, but then Much Ado is hardly a perfect play; given the imperfections of the source material, Whedon’s version is as good as it’s going to get. Ultimately, Whedon et al. show an innate understanding of Shakespeare’s intent. Though they’re changing the Bard’s work to suit their purpose, they continue to respect the source material. They don’t pretend this is “William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing”; and yet, for all the modern trappings, this strikes me as one adaptation which Shakespeare’s ghost might actually approve.

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