Much Ado about Much Ado about Nothing

The Georgia Straight said, “This is Shakespeare at its sharpest and most satisfying.”

Bard on the Beach‘s 2017 production of Much Ado About Nothing is visually spectacular and very well acted. Director John Murphy adapted this 1598 Shakespearean comedy and set it in 1950s Italy where the characters are glamorous film stars wearing tailored suits with skinny neckties or lacy cocktail dresses dangling cigarettes from their lips and riding off on Vespas.

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Waiting for the show to begin

The costumes and setting alone make this play a delight. Daringly minimalist, it features a few director’s chairs, boom mics, movie camera, and a large pair of “Studio B” doors as the backdrop that opens and closes to reveal slices of Vancouver scenery. The first act plays out in black and white, and gradually more colour is introduced “when love enters the picture” according to Pam Johnson, the scenery designer.

As with many of Shakespeare’s comedies, the dialogue is witty and quick, but I particularly found the language harder to follow in this one than other Bard plays. Luckily the visuals largely make up for this, but I still would have liked to catch more than 50-60%!

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Bard on the Beach tents in Vancouver

There are basically two strands to the plot: 1) Beatrice and Benedick, both stubbornly single and opinionated, take every opportunity to insult each other. Their friends hatch an elaborate plan to matchmake them. 2) Benedick’s friend Claudio falls in love with Beatrice’s cousin Hero and the two are set to be married.

Where’s the tension that moves the plot forward? That’s the part that confused me. It comes from the villain Dona Johnna, sister to Don Pedro, a famous film director. The synopsis in the program guide says she is a journalist and wannabe filmmaker, but that doesn’t explain why she devises her own elaborate plan to ruin Hero’s honour and break up her wedding to Claudio. I caught that she is jealous of her brother but how is interfering in Hero and Claudio’s relationship revenge for her brother’s success? Apparently my friend and I aren’t the only ones wondering about her motivation—Marsha Lederman in The Globe and Mail comments on this too. Again, is this because we couldn’t understand the Elizabethan English or because the plot is weak?

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Members of the cast in the Bard on the Beach production of Much Ado About Nothing. Photo by David Blue.

While Much Ado About Nothing is a lot of fun, it has more of a darker side to it than I expected from a Shakespearean comedy. A fiance disgraces his lover and a father renounces his daughter. A character is believed to be dead. Another character asks someone to murder a friend.

While all turns to happiness and dancing in the end, it certainly isn’t the uproarious and easily accessible comedy that last year’s Merry Wives of Windsor was.

Much Ado About Nothing is playing at Bard on the Beach in Vancouver until September 23.

The Poet’s Eye

If there is one Shakespeare play in my opinion that’s overdone and maybe I’ll be so bold as to say overrated, it would be A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Since the word “summer” is found in its title, I suppose that gives theatre companies the justification they need to perform this play ad nauseam during their summer programming. I think I’ve seen at least three versions of this play—including one opera (never again)—and that’s enough for me. If I make it to Bard on the Beach this summer, fortunately there are other options available like Measure for Measure, one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” because it’s not really comedy and not really tragedy. Not so black and white. Critics don’t know what to do with a grey play.

A Midsummer Night's DreamNevertheless, I recently listened to a lecture on a passage in A Midsummer Night’s Dream by poet and singer-songwriter Malcolm Guite who teaches at the University of Cambridge in England. We analyzed some lines from the play where Shakespeare defines the poet’s art through the mouth of Theseus who thinks he is dismissing “these antique fables” and “fairy toys”, but in protesting so strongly against poetry, actually gives a pretty convincing defense of the art. As Dr. Guite said, “He’s sawing off the very branch he’s sitting on.” Have a look:

The lunatic, the lover and the poet

Are of imagination all compact:

One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,

That is, the madman: the lover, all is frantic,

Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

Such tricks hath strong imagination,

That if it would apprehend some joy,

It comprehends some bringer of that joy;

Or in the night, imagining some fear,

How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

The poet glances from heaven to earth and earth to heaven—both axes are included, so it’s not an either/or but a both/and. The poet observes and writes everything from the mundane to the sublime, and his power lies in connecting these two axes: the earthly to the heavenly, the ordinary to the extraordinary, the prosaic to the divine, the known to the unknown, the visible to the invisible. The poet finds a form—through “the pen”—to make what is unknown known. He gives the unknown “a local habitation and a name.” (note that Shakespeare doesn’t say what is non-existent but what is unknown, meaning that just because we don’t know or understand something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist).

Anyway, Dr. Guite made an interesting point that all art/all imagination is essentially concerned with this task: of connecting earth to heaven and heaven to earth (or whatever adjectives that can be substituted to represent these dichotomies), and art fails when it fails to connect these two axes (and yes, art can fail—think of kitschy art or a bad story you’ve read or a terrible song on the radio.)

This lecture made me rethink why I really like certain art. I don’t want to go crazy analyzing why I resonate with certain stories or paintings or whatever it may be more than others, but it’s an interesting thought to consider: Is it because this story/painting/poem/song somehow connected these two axes for me? Did it make the unknown or the inexpressible, or what I felt but didn’t know somebody else felt, or what I wanted to say but didn’t have words for, known?

Two examples for me:

The music of Matthew Perryman Jones that I’ve written about before.

Victory Lap” by George Saunders. This was a surprising one. It’s the first short story in his book Tenth of December. The cover art is a stark contrast between black and white, but his stories inhabit that beautiful, fragile grey line between them.

I was blown away after reading “Victory Lap.” It’s exquisite, especially the ending. They both needed to save each other.