Northern Exposure

June 28, 2010 at 3:16 pm (Film Adaptations, Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , )

Thanks to blog reader Tue for pointing me to Peter Moss’s 1987 production of Much Ado About Nothing filmed by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and available on YouTube. It’s a very enjoyable version of the Stratford, Ontario stage production starring Tandy Cronyn (daughter of Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn) as Beatrice and Richard Monette as Benedick.

I’ve enjoyed the different takes on Beatrice and Benedick in all the film versions I’ve watched. These must be fun characters to play with all the witty repartee. Cronyn and Monette are very good together. Monette is skilled at using hilarious facial expressions and gestures to get more mileage out of his comic lines. It’s fun to watch and several times he had me laughing out loud just from the looks on his face.

I particularly like Brent Carver’s version of Don John here. He’s smarmy and diabolical. I really enjoy his performance of a character that is challenging to bring to life.

Don Pedro is interesting to me. In reading the play, I dislike the character. In performance, including here played by Edward Atienza, I see much good humor and charm in Pedro. In this Canadian production, I very much enjoy the giggling hilarity of the pranksters as they trick Benedick into loving Beatrice. Pedro is the lead clown and it’s all in good fun.

For me, there are no weak spots in this filmed-for-TV production. As I say, Don John and Benedick stand out as particularly strong here. Now that I’ve read the text a couple times, I’ve also had a chance to go back and watch the Branagh and New York Shakespeare Festival versions. Here’s my take: the Branagh movie is by far the best. It’s a beautiful and wonderfully watchable film. I love Emma Thompson’s Beatrice. But I still dislike Michael Keaton (as Dogberry) and Keanu Reeves (as Don John) in this film.

I like the Keystone Kops version of Dogberry best (from the New York production). After reading the text, I like the New York production better in general than I did on first viewing (and maybe I’m just not as tired now as I was then, when it put me immediately to sleep each time I turned it on!), but it’s still a bit zany overall for my taste. I like the New York version least of the film versions I’ve seen (although it’s still enjoyable). FYI on my Play by Play page, I list the films in each category with my favorites first.

This is the last film version I have for Much Ado About Nothing. Let me know if I missed something I should see! I enjoyed the Canadian broadcast… I’d love to get up north to Stratford, Ontario some day!

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Much Ado About Something

June 26, 2010 at 11:16 pm (Asides, Shakespeare's Life) (, , , , , )

Noise.

My brother asked me a couple weeks ago who wrote the plays. I told him Shakespeare. And also I don’t care about the authorship hubbub. It doesn’t interest me and I’d rather spend my time on the plays, not on the conspiracy theories. He said he liked the noise.

Then I remembered when I was searching for video versions of Much Ado About Nothing, I had seen available on Netflix a 2002 Frontline episode called Much Ado About Something. So, I put it in my queue.

It’s noise. It’s not even well done noise. Just noise. In this version, Michael Rubbo, the filmmaker, has an agenda that he puts right out there from the start. He is quoted on the PBS website:

Well, I feel in my gut that Shakespeare was not the author. I don’t think the proof against him is conclusive, but he just doesn’t feel and smell like the author to me.

Okie dokie. He believes Christopher Marlowe’s 1593 murder was staged, that Marlowe escaped to Italy and wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare. He believes Shakespeare was an actor and plausible front man who received Marlowe’s manuscripts and slightly modified them.

So in this version of reality, Marlowe and Shakespeare are collaborators. Marlowe is Cambridge-educated and has the necessary book-learning. He’s also the more successful poet and playwright (a “fast learner”) at the time of his supposed death at age 29. As it’s put in the film:

So, they become writing partners with Marlowe providing the learning and the great themes and Shakespeare the heart and soul of merry England.

In other words, Shakespeare adds the farce… Falstaff, Dogberry, Bottom. Right.

So Rubbo substantiates his thesis with a series of annoying interviews with “experts” whose expertise I question and with academics whose interviews are edited to make them appear a bit dotty.

His basic argument is that Shakespeare was not educated enough to write these plays and so it just doesn’t seem like he could have done it. There is a lot of time spent describing parallels, similarities and even word-for-word matches between works attributed to Shakespeare and Marlowe.

The conspirators analyze these and use their findings as proof that the works are from the same hand. The explanation given by scholars seems to be that the modern concept of plagiarism didn’t exist in Elizabethan times and that Shakespeare was not above lifting good ideas (sometimes verbatim) when it served him.

And then there is a lot more noise, errr, I mean additional evidence regarding the lack of record for various things that Shakespeare should have done if he’d really written the plays. He’s guilty of such sins of omission as not having any record of books in his estate (the writer of these plays would have owned lots of books!), he apparently didn’t bequeath money to the grammar school he might have attended (if that’s where he got his education, he should have donated money to them!), etc.

And then there’s noise, errr, I mean facts like Shakespeare’s daughters may have been illiterate (how could a man who lived with words like this not have taught his daughters to read them?), and then, of course, his handwriting just didn’t look neat enough from the six signatures extant — he was no John Hancock! (Did JH write plays? He sure had nice handwriting! He should have been a good writer!)

Noise.

Umm, I just did not find anything about this particular show believable or intriguing. I’m sure there is better stuff out there regarding authorship, but I’m not particularly interested. There is a lot of back and forth on the PBS forum for this show. Noise. Endless noise.

To paraphrase Mr. Rubbo, well, I feel in my gut that Shakespeare was the author. I don’t think the proof against him is conclusive, and he just feels and smells like the author to me.

Noise, Steve. Got anything better for me?

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And Be You Blithe and Bonny

June 22, 2010 at 8:31 pm (Analysis and Discussion, Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , )

Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,
Men were deceivers ever,
One foot in sea, and one on shore,
To one thing constant never.
Then sigh not so, but let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into hey nonny nonny.
II.3.62-69

I love Balthasar’s song. It describes the play’s action in a nutshell. The men in Much Ado About Nothing are deceivers. The women let them off the hook. Hero forgives Claudio for his (in my mind unforgivable!) actions and marries him. Beatrice, though nursing some past wrongs from Benedick, sees past them and marries him. We hear nothing from the maid Margaret regarding ill will toward Borachio for using her in order to frame her mistress Hero.

And so they all move into hey nonny, nonny (nonsense words… like la, la, la — letting go). The men here make much ado about nothing; the women make no ado about much, in my opinion. In any event, we are left with everyone blithe and bonny at the end, lightening their heels, as Benedick instructs them to dance as they strike up the band! So Balthasar’s song really summarizes the play for me.

Let’s focus now on the blithe and bonny part. These words mean lighthearted and merry. There is certainly much to laugh at in the play! I know my post on the many deceptions of menfolk may leave the impression that it’s a rather dreary combination of conniving, maneuvering and trickery. That’s not the case at all (although the dark stuff is all part of the plot!). The play is also filled with lighthearted mirth and slapstick humor. It’s quite fun!

Dogberry
We’ll start with the slapstick: Dogberry. He’s an oddball. He’s in an authority position as the constable in charge of the watch (he’s like the police chief). It becomes clear (when Conrad calls him an ass) that he thinks highly of himself and he can’t believe anyone would see him in a different light. And truly, he ends up doing his job well here — because of him and the watchman working for him, the truth of the window scene deception is uncovered and Hero’s reputation is cleared.

HOWEVER. Dear God, could Shakespeare possibly have created a more ass backwards character? He really is an ass. A complete and utter ass. I totally see the wisdom of portraying Dogberry and the watch as the Keystone Kops. He is so beyond silly and ridiculous. Ludicrous. I don’t even know how to describe this character.

His language is so wrong that it’s hard to glean meaning from it. Literally, I need a translator, and it’s not because it’s Elizabethan English. It’s because Dogberry says the opposite of what he means or he makes up words that sound like they could be meaningful, but have no meaning whatsoever. And he does it all very seriously. It’s so crazy-silly! Here are just a few examples from his first appearance:

First, who think you the most desertless [meaning deserving] man to be constable?
III.3.9

You are thought here to be the most senseless [sensible] and fit man for the constable of the watch. Therefore bear you the lantern. This is your charge: you shall comprehend [apprehend] all the vagrom [vagrant] men…
III.3.23-26

Okay, that gives you a small sense of the liberties Dogberry takes with vocabulary. These flips are constant and unceasing.

But beyond that, his meaning (and again, he takes a most serious posture with everything he says) is also often ass backwards. I mean, in his first scene where he is giving instructions to the watchmen, he basically tells them to go ahead and sleep on their watch and to leave the drunks to their own devises.

So, I find myself sitting here scratching my head a lot of the time with Dogberry. What did he say? What did he mean? And then, what makes the whole schtick even funnier is that his cohorts all go along with him like he makes sense. It really is the silliest thing. Frankly, it’s all so crazy that I’m left not really understanding (or trying that hard to understand) all the foolery. 

Now, maybe a reader will comment about what an intriguing character Dogberry is and I will need to consider him in more detail as I did when I said it might be just as well to yada yada through Mercutio’s constant sexual puns in Romeo and Juliet!

The Pranksters
Oh sheesh. Don Pedro comes up with the idea of getting Benedick and Beatrice together by tricking them into each thinking the other is just about sick with love and unable to voice it. Pedro seems to do this for sport… it’s a pastime as they while away the long days until Claudio and Hero’s wedding. It’s also maybe because of the challenge he made to Benedick early on when Benedick is swearing up and down that he’ll never get married. Pedro responds: “I shall see thee, ere I die, look pale with love.” I.1.235

In any event, Pedro comes up with the merry plan of bluffing these two into love, and everyone else falls merrily into the plot, loving every minute of it and playing it to the hilt! They are all just a giggling mess as they’re baiting the hooks and reeling B&B into their nets. It’s so silly!

Who is in on the game? Everyone! Pedro, Claudio and Leonato pull the wool over Benedick’s eyes. And Hero, Margaret and Ursula mess with Beatrice, all at Pedro’s instigation. Oh, how they laugh! Pssss, psssss, psssss… whispering like I do when I’m telling secrets with my kids. They lay it on so thick. Here’s a little taste:

CLAUDIO
Hero thinks surely she will die; for she says she
will die, if he love her not, and she will die, ere
she make her love known, and she will die, if he woo
her, rather than she will bate one breath of her
accustomed crossness.
II.3.168-172

It goes on and on. And they do this with Benedick eavesdropping, trying to catch every last morsel about Beatrice, who he suddenly sees in a new light! Benedick, newly starry-eyed and bamboozled, says, “Love me? Why, it must be requited.” II.3.213-214

And the pranksters are just laughing themselves silly. Pedro says:

The sport will be, when they hold one an opinion of
another’s dotage, and no such matter: that’s the
scene that I would see, which will be merely a
dumb-show. Let us send her to call him in to dinner.
II.3.206-209

He’s saying he can’t wait to see the two of them together after Beatrice has gone through the same shenanigans, because then they will each just be bursting with their newfound feelings… maybe even tongue-tied! B&B tongue-tied! That will be a sight! Oh, they are laughing at all this.

And then Hero, Margaret and Ursula work their magic on Beatrice, just as thick. And the newly starry-eyed and bamboozled Beatrice falls for it, just as heavily as Benedick: “And Benedick, love on, I will requite thee.” III.1.111

B&B
I save the best for last. Dogberry is ridiculous; he is like the Three Stooges on steroids. Don Pedro and his pranks are silly business. But the barbed banter of Benedick and Beatrice is something else to behold. Their exchanges are witty and bright, fun, funny, punny and light. The humor of B&B’s wit keeps you on your toes.

It’s not all easy to get; and some of it has darker double meanings. Particularly Beatrice, who has been hurt by Benedick in the past, has an edge… a very sharp edge, on her rapier wit. Here is their first interchange in the play. They have not seen each other in several years. They feed off each other and they are each quick on the return parry.

BEATRICE
I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior
Benedick: nobody marks you.

BENEDICK
What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living?

BEATRICE
Is it possible disdain should die while she hath
such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick?
Courtesy itself must convert to disdain, if you come
in her presence.

BENEDICK
Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I
am loved of all ladies, only you excepted: and I
would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard
heart; for, truly, I love none.

BEATRICE
A dear happiness to women: they would else have
been troubled with a pernicious suitor. I thank God
and my cold blood, I am of your humour for that: I
had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man
swear he loves me.

BENEDICK
God keep your ladyship still in that mind! so some
gentleman or other shall ‘scape a predestinate
scratched face.

BEATRICE
Scratching could not make it worse, an ’twere such
a face as yours were.

BENEDICK
Well, you are a rare parrot-teacher.

BEATRICE
A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours.

BENEDICK
I would my horse had the speed of your tongue, and
so good a continuer. But keep your way, i’ God’s
name; I have done.

BEATRICE
You always end with a jade’s trick: I know you of old.
I.1.110-139 

It is always like this between B&B. It’s exhausting! You can just imagine all the onlookers gawking at the back-and-forth like the audience at a tennis match. Funny? Oh my gosh, yes. But also, it’s easy to sense some bitterness hidden not far below the surface with Beatrice. Maybe much of her humor is defensive; a protective mechanism, saving her from facing the injury Benedick dealt her in the past.

Benedick is a worthy and witty adversary, but Beatrice often has him by the seat of his pants. At the masked dance, Benedick pretends to be someone else and not even acquainted with Benedick; Beatrice (I believe not fooled) is then freed to go off on a witty tangent about what a dull fool Benedick is. Benedick can’t believe that Beatrice doesn’t recognize him and would say such things — he is hurt by her words.

I think the next scene is the funniest in the play. Benedick is talking to Pedro after the masked dance and then sees Beatrice coming toward them. He begs Pedro to send him on any errand to any spot in the known world to give him an excuse to avoid Beatrice. Here’s the exchange. 

DON PEDRO
The Lady Beatrice hath a quarrel to you: the
gentleman that danced with her told her she is much
wronged by you.

BENEDICK
O, she misused me past the endurance of a block!
an oak but with one green leaf on it would have
answered her; my very visor began to assume life and
scold with her. She told me, not thinking I had been
myself, that I was the prince’s jester, that I was
duller than a great thaw; huddling jest upon jest
with such impossible conveyance upon me that I stood
like a man at a mark, with a whole army shooting at
me. She speaks poniards, and every word stabs:
if her breath were as terrible as her terminations,
there were no living near her; she would infect to
the north star. I would not marry her, though she
were endowed with all that Adam bad left him before
he transgressed: she would have made Hercules have
turned spit, yea, and have cleft his club to make
the fire too. Come, talk not of her: you shall find
her the infernal Ate in good apparel. I would to God
some scholar would conjure her; for certainly, while
she is here, a man may live as quiet in hell as in a
sanctuary; and people sin upon purpose, because they
would go thither; so, indeed, all disquiet, horror
and perturbation follows her.

DON PEDRO
Look, here she comes.

Enter CLAUDIO, BEATRICE, HERO, and LEONATO

BENEDICK
Will your grace command me any service to the
world’s end? I will go on the slightest errand now
to the Antipodes that you can devise to send me on;
I will fetch you a tooth-picker now from the
furthest inch of Asia, bring you the length of
Prester John’s foot, fetch you a hair off the great
Cham’s beard, do you any embassage to the Pigmies,
rather than hold three words’ conference with this
harpy. You have no employment for me?

DON PEDRO
None, but to desire your good company.

BENEDICK
O God, sir, here’s a dish I love not: I cannot
endure my Lady Tongue.

Exit
II.1. 224-260

I can just imagine the tears running down Pedro’s face, he must be laughing so hard. It’s all so fast and furious, there’s hardly time to take a breath! Poor Benedick, in such a tizzy over the lady Beatrice. Game, set, match! (But which one won?!)

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The Local News

June 18, 2010 at 11:33 pm (Film Adaptations, Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , )

The BBC gets the job done, once again! The 2005 BBC’s Shakespeare Retold version of Much Ado About Nothing is really something! I enjoyed it quite a lot. This is a totally modern version using modern English. It is set in a TV news studio. Beatrice (played by Sarah Parish) is one of the news anchors. Benedick (Damian Lewis), a former colleague and boyfriend who jilted her three years before, is re-hired when the current co-anchor drinks himself into a little sabbatical.

Hero (Billie Piper) is the hare-brained weather girl and Claude (Tom Ellis) is a reporter. They bond over difficulty pronouncing “meteorological.” They aren’t the sharpest tacks. I liked this quite a lot. They seem so right for each other.

Benedick and Beatrice are fun and modern; I like them both and they have great chemistry. There’s a sweet scene where they bond over Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. Benedick is best man for Claude and plans to read this at the wedding.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
   If this be error and upon me proved,
   I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Beatrice helps him understand the lines and he’s impressed that she’s so literary. It’s sweet.

The Don John character takes a pretty major leap from the original play. Here it’s Don (Derek Riddell), the director who has just lost his wife. Hero has pity sex with him and he develops an obsession with her. He’s also drinking and gets demoted to graphics guy. Wow is he creepy. So, the motivation here is different than in the original play. He’s obsessed with Hero and his brooding jealousy of her relationship with Claude fuels the lies and deception that ruin Hero and Claude’s wedding.

Also, Hero takes a step toward modernity in standing up for herself after the jilting. The ending for Hero and Claude is quite different and more modern than Shakespeare’s ending.

The whole show is well done and very watchable. I like the way things are tied up for B&B. The final scene is quite a giggle!

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Men Were Deceivers Ever

June 17, 2010 at 12:07 pm (Analysis and Discussion, Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , )

Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,
Men were deceivers ever,
One foot in sea, and one on shore,
To one thing constant never.
Then sigh not so, but let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into hey nonny nonny.
II.3.62-69

Much Ado About Nothing is a study in male deception. It’s interesting, because the men make much ado about female deception — with incessant teasing and reference to the cuckold horns (referring to a man whose wife is unfaithful). Constant joking on this and yet there’s no grounds for it — women in this play are true.

But the whole play is about deception. The introduction in my edition points out that the words “nothing” and “noting” were pronounced the same in Elizabethan English, so Shakespeare was punning on the title. Another way of reading it is Much Ado About Noting, referring to noticing what others say or eavesdropping. And from that perspective, nothing really is the way it’s noted! Nothing is as it seems. There is much deception. Let’s take a look.

Don John: We’ll start with the most obvious deceiver. Don John’s whole purpose in the play is to deceive. And his deceptions fuel the plot. First, he tricks Claudio into believing that Don Pedro woos Hero for himself and not for Claudio. Claudio notes what John says and believes that Pedro has deceived him. Yet, there is nothing to it; Pedro did as he said, he wooed Hero for Claudio.

When nothing comes of that deception, Don John kicks into high gear and engineers the deception most central to the plot by convincing Don Pedro and Claudio of Hero’s disloyalty and then taking them to witness the supposed deed itself at the window on the night before the wedding. This is an evil deception with evil intent — Don John despises Claudio for his closeness with Don Pedro and wants him to suffer. He’s a despicable character. Again, though, there’s nothing to this… ultimately Claudio realizes that nothing he noted is what he thought. Hero is not a whore with another man on the night before her wedding, and there is nothing true about the accusations against her. Much ado about nothing.

Borachio: He’s Don John’s follower and he’s paid well by John for coming up with the idea of the window scene deception. Yes, although Don John lays the foundation by talking Don Pedro and Claudio into believing in Hero’s disloyalty and taking them to view the scene, the idea for this evil deception comes from Borachio. Borachio is the man at Hero’s bedroom window, there with Margaret and calling her “Hero.” Although Claudio and Don Pedro see what they believe they’ll see (in this case because Don John has prepped them and they believe they will see Hero with a man), it is Borachio’s acting that fulfills the deception. Borachio also apparently deceives Margaret, who he claims later is innocent and not a knowing participant in the conspiracy leading to Hero’s downfall.

Don Pedro: What is up with Pedro? He is apparently an older man, a prince and leads men in battle — you would think he’d be sensible and level-headed. The more I get to know Pedro, the less I like him. At best he’s a nosy and foolish prankster.

First, I do not understand why he offers to woo Hero for Claudio. What an odd little game of a deception to come up with. Why? Like Claudio is too shy to woo her for himself? That is not made clear in the text to me, yet Pedro comes up with this bright idea. It’s so odd and unnecessary! He deceives Hero, pretending to be Claudio while wearing a mask. What’s even odder here is that due to the misnoting of Hero’s uncle’s man (much gossip and eavesdropping going on in this play!) Hero is actually all set for Pedro himself to propose to her! So, who knows if she’s actually deceived by Pedro’s prank — she may have assumed Pedro was really proposing to her! But if not, what an odd turn it takes for her. Ultimately, it’s a harmless prank, as Pedro really does woo Hero for Claudio’s sake, but it’s so odd!

Then, the next prank comes quickly into Pedro’s head: Let’s trick Benedick and Beatrice into loving each other! It’s all his idea to have Benedick overhear him and the other men discussing how much Beatrice loves him. And then he tells the women to get Beatrice to overhear them talking about Benedick loving her. Much ado about noting! He’s the prankster supreme here… just loving the whole big joke.

Claudio: Claudio is in on this joke to deceive Benedick. He has no qualms about it. It’s all so much fun! Also, earlier, Claudio pretends to be Benedick while wearing his mask — Don John knows it’s Claudio, but pretends to think it’s Benedick and Claudio never sets him straight. Then, Claudio believes John because he thinks that John thought he was telling Benedick about Pedro’s supposed deception, wooing Hero for himself instead of for Claudio. Much ado about nothing!

Leonato: Leonato gets in on the deception. Benedick only believes the pranksters regarding Beatrice’s supposedly being sick with love for him because of Leonato’s participation in the ruse. If the gray-haired man, the governor of Messina, is involved, it must be true! So Leonato’s deception is instrumental in the matchmaking ploy. In addition, Leonato has no problem going along with the later deception, pretending that Hero is dead.

Friar Francis: Even the good friar is guilty of deception. It’s his idea to pretend that Hero is dead. He hopes this deception will lead Claudio to miss her and feel remorse for the accusations against her.

Antonio: Old Antonio, Hero’s uncle, falls neatly into the deception about Hero’s death. He knows she’s not really dead, yet he puts on a convincing (and if it were real, touching) display of anger and heartbreak as he lashes out at Claudio for his accusations. Wow. These folks are eager and natural deceivers!

Benedick: I’ll end with our protagonist. He is generally a good man in this play, honest and true to his word. But even he is guilty of deception. Before the play’s action, Beatrice tells us that Benedick deceived her and broke her heart. During the play, Benedick plays the rather minor and flirty deception at the masked dance, pretending to be someone else while dancing with Beatrice (and I don’t believe Beatrice is deceived). And then finally, Benedick works hard at deceiving himself, telling himself over and over again how happy he is being a bachelor and how much he dislikes Beatrice. This self-deception turns out to be amazingly easy to undo with just a little deception from the other men as he eavesdrops on the gossips.

Yes, indeed. Men were deceivers ever. And nothing is as noted. And it’s all much ado about nothing!

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Almost Heaven

June 14, 2010 at 2:19 pm (All's Well That Ends Well, Live Performances, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , , , )

Almost heaven
Central Virginia
Blue Ridge Mountains
Shenandoah River

What a difference a word makes. John Denver’s signature song never made any sense to me, because I knew the Blue Ridge and Shenandoah are in Virginia, not West Virginia. I’m too literal. His poetry is better than mine, eh? The story behind that song is even funnier because the country road that inspired “Take Me Home, Country Roads” is actually Clopper Road, right here in my backyard in Montgomery County, Maryland. Let’s see:

Almost heaven
Suburban Maryland
Sugarloaf Mountain
Seneca Creek and Potomac River

Nah. He had it right.

Anyway, I drove down through the Shenandoah last weekend, between the Blue Ridge and Massanutten Mountain. It really is almost heaven. It’s so lovely. Appalachia is just around the corner, but a world away from suburban Washington, DC. I am always surprised at how I feel when I see the mountains on the horizon. The ridges are peaceful, the scenery all through the Shenandoah Valley is gentle and bucolic. There’s no traffic, people are Southern and polite. It’s a different world.

What’s it have to do with Shakespeare? Quite a lot, it turns out. The American Shakespeare Center has built the only replica of Blackfriars Playhouse, the indoor Elizabethan venue for Shakespeare’s plays (ASC also plans to build a replica of the Globe, Shakespeare’s open-air theater). You will never guess where it’s located: Staunton, Virginia, in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley.

I made the drive down to Staunton this weekend to catch a show. I saw All’s Well That Ends Well on Saturday night. It was so much fun! Believe me, this is not highbrow, snooty Shakespeare. This is not like any other theater experience I’ve ever had. It’s really light-hearted and fun… sort of a casual, festival atmosphere with the players milling around before the show selling raffle tickets (they raffled a T-shirt with Shakespearean insults signed by cast) and drumming up business for the bar set up on the stage. All the while, musicians (also actors) are playing modern music from the balcony above the stage.

ASC production of Hamlet 2005. Photo by Tommy Thompson.

The ASC uses Renaissance staging practices. Their website describes what they do. The theater remains lit throughout the play and the actors interact a bit (not an annoying amount) with the audience. I sat in the third row from the stage — great seats, but I don’t think there’s a bad seat in the house. There are even seats on the stage for the truly brave (they do become part of the show). People are also invited to sit in the balcony directly above the stage. So, the players play to all four sides of the stage. 

Blackfriars Playhouse stage. Photo by Tommy Thompson.

There is no set, no curtain. The players simply enter and depart from three doors at the back of the stage. If you’ve seen Shakespeare in Love, you have an idea of how the Renaissance stage was set up. It’s basically a platform with doors in the back wall. It’s so simple and yet it works amazingly well during the performance. I didn’t miss the set.

The costumes are lovely, the acting wonderful. Really, these actors are engaging and witty and fantastic. They are fully in control and at ease with the material and they bring the play to life. There is no way to miss the meaning of the sex jokes here… the actors work them for all they are worth, and it is very bawdy and funny. Everyone was laughing. (Romeo and Juliet is also currently showing in repertory and I would love to see what they do with Mercutio!). 

Ginna Hoben as Helena and Aidan O'Reilly as Bertram in All's Well That Ends Well. Photo by Mike Bailey.

The play moves along briskly, but I understood all the dialogue. There was not a weak spot anywhere in the play for me although because I did not have a chance to read the text beforehand, I was not always 100 percent up with the convoluted action (I was not totally clear on the “trick” at the end that enables Helena to consummate her marriage to Bertram while pretending to be Diana… my own lack of attention and not any fault of the actors that I didn’t totally get it!).

Unlike Shakespeare’s time, when only men could act, this company uses both male and female actors. But I noticed some role reversals. There was a woman playing a man’s part early in the play and after the intermission a (tall, quite masculine) man playing (very humorously) Diana’s mother. By the way, the intermission is more of the festival atmosphere, with again, musicians belting out fun tunes (memorably, “Got My Mojo Working” and “When Will I Be Loved” — all crowd pleasers and very entertaining), drinks getting dispensed from the onstage bar and players walking around chatting and encouraging everyone to have fun.

Thanks to Jamie at Maryland Shakespeare where I first heard of Blackfriars. I loved this experience. If you are in the DC area or anywhere nearish, get thee to Staunton! It is a cute little town and only 2.5 hours from the DC beltway (I meandered and took my time… see below if you want my recommendations for driving routes).

It is well worth the trip to see a play in this theater. I personally wouldn’t even care which play I went to… it’s the experience and atmosphere of Renaissance-style theater that’s the draw to Staunton. (Not the only draw… it’s a quaint little town with shops and restaurants and the surrounding area has plenty to do.) I think this would be a very good way to expose kids to Shakespeare. I saw quite a few children (older, well-behaved kids) in the audience, including in the on-stage seats. Because of the festive atmosphere and quick movement of the play, I’d say this is a great experience for kids age 10 and up.

The spring season is just about finished and the summer season starts soon with Othello, The Taming of the Shrew, and Wild Oats. In the winter, they do experimental “Actors’ Renaissance” performances with little rehearsing, more like conditions in Shakespeare’s day. Sounds interesting! If you can’t make it to the Shenandoah Valley, keep an eye out for these folks on the road. They are good. The 2010-2011 Restless Ecstasy Tour with As You Like It, Macbeth and Measure for Measure may be coming to a theater near you.

But try to get to the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton. I know I plan to return!

Here are my route suggestions from the DC area to Staunton, VA: I’m sure the fastest way is I-66 to I-81. I bet it would take less than 2.5 hours from Tysons. I wouldn’t know because I didn’t go that way!

I took the beltway to I-66 to Front Royal exit 13. Left at the exit and then right onto Route 55. Then to US-340 south through the valley between the Blue Ridge and Massanutten Mountain, travelling through Luray (a nice stop to see the caverns!). Very nice countryside. I cut west on Route 33, left on 276 Cross Keys Rd, right on 256 Weyers Cave Rd, left on Route 11 south to Staunton. Only bad part of this route was the beltway and 66. As usual, I was in stop-and-go traffic past Manassas. It took me 3.5 hours from Montgomery County with very heavy traffic for the first hour.

Or from Montgomery County, Maryland, take Route 28 west through Darnestown to left at fork onto White’s Ferry Road. Take White’s Ferry across the Potomac (quite a fun little excursion to yesteryear if you’ve never done it before and you get to see the Confederate Stars and Bars flying proudly with the Maryland state flag!). Left on Route 15 south toward Leesburg, then Route 7 west to Winchester and hook yourself up on Route 11 south, the Valley Turnpike, which you can drive scenically all the way to Staunton (through many cute little towns). The only traffic you’ll hit on this route is in Leesburg, otherwise it’s clear sailing. I took this way home, and thought it was really nice. I stopped too many times to know how long the driving part takes. I would guess at least 3.5 hours, depending on how long you have to wait for the ferry. There are many Civil War markers, Confederate statues and battlefields along the way… the Shenandoah Valley was in the thick of things back then.

© All Content, Copyright 2010 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.

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BBC = Gets the Job Done

June 11, 2010 at 8:46 pm (Film Adaptations, Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , , )

I found Stuart Burge’s 1984 version of Much Ado About Nothing (part of the BBC’s Television Shakespeare series) quite enjoyable. It’s a straightforward rendition, true to the text, and nothing odd (i.e., green fairies) or annoying (i.e., boring, beige people). There are no bicycles, no Keystone Kops, no surreal umbrellas.

This is the 35th film adaptation I’ve watched for this blog, and I’d gotten so used to gimmicks, I’d kind of forgotten that Shakespeare could be staged in a straightforward Elizabethan setting… and work! Yes, this film works for me.

The setting is not breathtaking like the luscious Tuscan villa in the Branagh version, but it’s fine. The set is a lovely castle, the costumes are lovely Elizabethan costumes, the actors are all good. Now I realize how unusual that last statement is. None of the actors stand out as incredible, I knew none of their names going into it, and I don’t recognize any of them. They’re all good! None are floundering with their lines, none seem uncomfortable in their roles… I see now that this must be very difficult to achieve with Shakespeare.

Beatrice (played by Cherie Lunghi) is quick-witted and sharp-tongued. Lunghi has Beatrice down to a T. I found myself sometimes comparing her in my mind to Emma Thompson in the role, but she doesn’t fare poorly in the comparison. I love Emma Thompson… I find her facial expressions and facility with the words really amazing. But Lunghi does a great job. Her Beatrice is a bit more uptight in prim Elizabethan outfits than Thompson’s loose-limbed ease with her open-necked bodices. But still, it works well. No complaints.

And, she’s got great chemistry with Benedick, played by Robert Lindsay (it’s funny, I see now that Lindsay also played Lysander in the BBC version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but I didn’t recognize him at all). I really appreciate Benedick’s transformation in the film from scruffy, bearded soldier to clean-shaven, handsome swain.

Besides B&B, the rest of the actors do admirable jobs. In the introduction in my edition of the text, it says that the character Don John is “taciturn and opaque–and for most actors almost unplayable.” I had my strong issues with Keanu Reeves in the role in Branagh’s version. With this in my mind, I admire Vernon Dobtcheff’s take on Don John in this BBC version. He’s socially awkward and villainous… a devilish combination. I think he does a good job. I’m not terribly fond of Don Pedro in this version (played by Jon Finch), but I think he’s true to the text. The more I get to know the Don Pedro character, the less I like him.

Anyway, this version is straightforward Shakespeare. Nothing fancy, but it works. It has the drawbacks, I guess, of the Elizabethan setting and British accents (for people who find that intimidating). I like it all. Thumbs up to the BBC and thumbs up to B&B. They put on quite a smooch at the end.

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Much Ado About Nothing, Abridged

June 9, 2010 at 11:30 pm (Much Ado About Nothing, Plot Summaries, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , )

Here is a summary of the plot, and as always, I hope it will entice you to read the actual play. This play is very funny, but there are also some very dark themes. The witty banter between the characters, especially Benedick and Beatrice, can be a bit hard to follow, but it is nonstop and very entertaining. Dogberry and his bumbling cohorts are also very amusing. This play is quite short. I hope you will read it!

If anyone sees any errors, let me know so I can fix them—this is just based on my casual reading of the text, so I could easily have things out of order or get the details wrong.

Without further ado, here’s… Much Ado About Nothing.

Overview
In short, we could call this Three Weddings and a Funeral (although neither the weddings nor the funeral actually take place during the play!). The play is set in Messina (Sicily). The plot centers on Hero and Claudio’s relationship. They plan to marry, but on the night before the wedding, the villainous Don John tricks Claudio into believing that Hero is an unworthy whore.  Claudio jilts her at the altar, causing Hero to faint, and it appears she is dead. Her family hides her, hoping Claudio will miss her and feel remorse. Eventually, thanks to the bumbling Dogberry and the watchmen, the truth comes out, and Hero is proved innocent. Claudio and Hero end up marrying.

It’s interesting because Shakespeare creates the plot around fairly minor, unengaging characters. Hero doesn’t speak much; Claudio is immature and not very likable. Even more interesting is that the plot moves along due to the actions of Don John, an incredibly leaden character who speaks almost not at all in the play!

None of this sounds very funny, does it? The play is quite light-hearted. The fun centers on the banter between the main characters, Benedick and Beatrice. These two have very little to do with the plot, but everything to do with the fun of the play. They begin as bantering adversaries. The other characters see the potential love connection and conspire to bring the two together. Their efforts are fruitful. B&B get married at the end along with Hero and Claudio!

The Soldiers Return
The play opens with a messenger arriving to tell Leonato, the governor of Messina, that Don Pedro and his soldiers are returning from battle and will arrive shortly. Leonato’s niece, Beatrice, asks the messenger if Benedick is returning with the others (he is) and she goes off on a witty tangent about him. She asks who Benedick is hanging out with these days, and the messenger tells her Claudio. This sends the sharp-tongued Beatrice into another tirade.

Don Pedro and his men arrive and Leonato greets them warmly. There is some “guy talk” — lighthearted joking about whether Leonato is Hero’s father (so his wife told him and he didn’t have any reason to doubt her since Benedick was but a child at the time, har, har). Benedick goes on a bit longer than necessary and Beatrice makes fun of him for continuing to talk when no one is listening. This gets the two of them going at each other for the first time in the play. Their witfest is pretty much non-stop whenever the two are near each other. They each profess to being happy if they never marry and neither can stand the other.

In the meantime, Don Pedro has been catching Leonato up on the latest news. Don Pedro agrees to stay in Messina for at least a month. Leonato also invites Don Pedro’s brother Don John, who has been off sulking by himself.

Love Struck
Claudio has seen Hero and has fallen in love. Benedick teases him mercilessly, but Claudio is starry-eyed. Don Pedro thinks she’s a lovely girl and a good match for Claudio.

Benedick makes it clear that he doesn’t trust women and will happily stay a bachelor forever. Don Pedro takes this as a challenge and tells Benedick he’ll see him fall in love. There is much, much, much joking (here and throughout the play) about cuckold horns (referring to women being unfaithful).

Don Pedro and Claudio continue their discussion about Hero, and Pedro offers to help Claudio win her hand. They are attending a masked dance that night, and Don Pedro will pretend to be Claudio, woo Hero, discuss marriage with her father Leonato, and do this all on Claudio’s behalf.

This conversation is overheard and discussed twice. Leonato’s brother Antonio hears it from his servant, and gets it all wrong. Antonio tells Leonato that Don Pedro is going to woo Hero and ask Leonato if he (Don Pedro) can marry her.

Then, Don John, busy telling his man Conrad about how unhappy he is, hears the real story from his man Borachio. Don John is very jealous of Claudio’s closeness with his brother Don Pedro, so hatches a plan to hurt Claudio.

The Masked Dance
Don Pedro makes a beeline for Hero and they dance. A number of other couples dance and chat. B&B spar, with the sharp-tongued Beatrice acting like she doesn’t know that she’s speaking to Benedick, so she says mean things, calling Benedick the prince’s jester and a very dull fool.

Don John tells Claudio that Don Pedro woos Hero for himself. Claudio believes him. When Benedick tells Claudio that Don Pedro was successful in wooing Hero, Claudio leaves in anger to sulk (thinking that Don Pedro wooed her for himself). Benedick tells Don Pedro and Don Pedro says he’ll make it right with Claudio.

Pedro teases Benedick about quarrelling with Beatrice. Benedick is nearly overcome just remembering the conversation with Beatrice. Then, when she approaches, he comes up with a number of hilarious errands he hopes Pedro will send him on to the far reaches of the known world, just to avoid having to hear Beatrice’s voice again. He escapes before she corners him again.

Here Beatrice mentions to Don Pedro that she had once before fallen in love with Benedick and that he deceived her and hurt her. This explains some of her bitterness toward Benedick.

Claudio arrives in a huff and Don Pedro sets him straight, explaining that he wooed Hero in Claudio’s name, as promised, and all is well. While Claudio and Hero get cozy, Don Pedro teasingly proposes to Beatrice. Beatrice turns him down lightly and leaves to run an errand for her uncle Leonato.

Don Pedro tells Leonato that Beatrice would be a fine wife for Benedick. Leonato points out, “O Lord, my lord, if they were but a week married, they would talk themselves mad.” (II.1.333-334)

Leonato asks Claudio to wait a week to marry Hero. Don Pedro hatches a plan to get B&B together while they wait for Claudio and Hero’s wedding. Claudio, Hero and Leonato agree to help.

The Plot Thickens
Borachio tells Don John that Claudio plans to marry Hero, but that Borachio knows how he can put a stop to it. He says Don John should tell Claudio that Hero is disloyal and get him worked up about it. For proof, he should bring Don Pedro and Claudio to stand outside Hero’s window. Borachio says that Hero’s maid Margaret has a thing for him, and that she will go to Hero’s window with him and he’ll call her Hero and it will fool Claudio and Don Pedro. Don John loves the plan and promises to pay Borachio well if it works.

Baiting the Hooks
Benedick is busy talking to himself about how happy he is being a bachelor and how no woman will ever catch him. He hides when he hears others approach.

Don Pedro and Claudio see Benedick hiding. They ask Balthasar to sing. He sings his song:

Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,
Men were deceivers ever,
One foot in sea and one on shore,
To one thing constant never:
Then sigh not so, but let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into Hey nonny, nonny.
Sing no more ditties, sing no moe,
Of dumps so dull and heavy;
The fraud of men was ever so,
Since summer first was leafy:
Then sigh not so, & c.
II.3.60-73

After the song, Leonato, Claudio and Don Pedro proceed to bait the hook for Benedick. They know he is eavesdropping, so they go on at length about how much Beatrice loves Benedick and how she is sick with love for him, but can’t say anything and he would just make fun of her and torment her if he knew. They lay it on so thick. So thick. Here’s an example:

CLAUDIO
Then down upon her knees she falls, weeps, sobs,
beats her heart, tears her hair, prays, curses; ‘O
sweet Benedick! God give me patience!’
II.3.143-45

They are so ridiculous, and Benedick hardly believes them except that he can’t imagine Leonato would be in on a mean joke like this. So, Benedick believes that Beatrice loves him and it awakens his love for her.

So, Benedick is reeled in. Now the other hook is baited. Margaret tells Beatrice to go out in the garden because Hero and Ursula are talking about her. Beatrice runs out and hides herself so she can eavesdrop. Ursula and Hero go on and on about how much Benedick loves Beatrice but that Beatrice is too scornful and proud to even tell about it. They lay it on thick. They reel her in. She believes them, her love for Benedick awakens, she must requite it!

Leonato, Claudio and Don Pedro see Benedick and joke that he must be in love (he’s shaved his beard and wearing cologne).

The Window Scene
Don John tells Don Pedro and Claudio that Hero is disloyal and that he can prove it if they meet him beneath her window that night. Claudio believes Don John and vows to disgrace Hero at the altar. Don Pedro agrees.

The window scene is pivotal to the plot of Much Ado About Nothing, and yet Shakespeare doesn’t include the scene in the play. He alludes to it, we see the fallout from it later, but it isn’t staged.

Dogberry and the Watch
Dogberry is the constable, in charge of the watchmen, Messina’s security force. He is a crazy ridiculous character. Much of the time, he says the exact opposite of what he means. A fair amount of the time, he just makes up words. He says everything very seriously, and it all seems to make sense to him! I have to admit he does not always make sense to me.

So, on his first appearance in the play, Dogberry gives the watchmen their orders for the night. And he tells them they should be quiet and fall asleep on the job. And they should mess with the Prince (Don Pedro) if they see him. That kind of thing. It’s odd! ( But funny.) The watchmen take it all in stride and seem satisfied that they know what to do!

Conrad and Borachio (from the Spanish word for “drunken”) chat about “the window scene” that was not seen on stage. That is, Borachio boasts to Conrad about being with Margaret at Hero’s window and calling her Hero while Claudio, Don Pedro and Don Juan watched from below. The watchmen overhear the conversation and arrest both Conrad and Borachio.

In the morning, Hero gets ready for her wedding, and there is much discussion between her and Margaret about the fashion of her gown.

Dogberry and his sidekick Verges try to tell Leonato that they have arrested two suspicious men who they think Leonato should see. However, they are so roundabout and annoying that Leonato loses patience and tells them to examine the suspects themselves and give him the executive summary later. He is too busy getting ready for his daughter’s wedding to be dealing with the bumbling Dogberry.

The Wedding, Interrupted
This is a truly cruel and awful scene. The wedding begins and Hero is blissfully ignorant that anything is wrong. Claudio and Don Pedro say nothing of what they’d witnessed the night before (they think they saw Hero having sex with Borachio at her window) until after Friar Francis begins the ceremony. At this point Claudio starts railing about Hero being a whore and Don Pedro backs him up.

Hero is dumbstruck. She can barely speak. She can barely defend herself. She simply says:

I talked with no man at that hour, my lord.
IV.1.85

Claudio, Don Pedro and Don John go on about what they saw, and Leonato believes them. When her father turns on her, Hero faints dead away. Claudio, Don Pedro, and Don John leave.

Friar Francis believes Hero is innocent and unjustly accused. He comes up with a plan to pretend that Hero is dead, hoping that Claudio will miss her and see how good she really is. And failing that, they can send her off secretly to a convent.

Benedick Tested
Up to this point, Benedick and Beatrice have been flirtatious and silly, but here is a turning point in their relationship. Beatrice is sick about her cousin Hero and knows she is innocent. Benedick asks what he can do to help, and Beatrice replies, shockingly, “Kill Claudio.” (IV.1.288)

At first, Benedick cannot believe she asked this of him, but they keep talking and slowly Benedick comes to understand the depth of Beatrice’s feelings about Hero’s innocence and Claudio’s treachery. She would do it herself if she were a man. Benedick finally agrees to challenge Claudio.

Dogberry is an Ass
The watchmen describe to Dogberry the conversation they overheard between Borachio and Conrad. Dogberry has the sexton write everything down so that they can show it to Leonato. As always, Dogberry is very roundabout and back asswards in his speech, and Conrad actually calls him an ass. Dogberry is utterly offended and cannot believe anyone would say such a thing.

Limbo
The next part of the play I see as a sort of limbo. Everything is in uproar. Leonato tells his brother Antonio how sad he is for his daughter Hero. Antonio is angry and lets loose a tirade on Claudio. Claudio and Don Pedro close ranks and deny slandering Hero — they are confident in the whoring they saw at the window. Claudio is very callous to the old men and acts like he doesn’t care that Hero is dead.

Benedick arrives and Claudio hopes his usual wit and humor will lighten the mood. Twit. Benedick is in an evil mood toward Claudio and threatens him. Don Pedro tries to lighten things up by teasing about Beatrice, but Benedick will have none of it. He tells Don Pedro he can no longer be friends and he will fight Claudio. He tells them they have killed an innocent lady and that Don John has fled the city. Don Pedro is very surprised that Benedick takes this all so seriously.

The Truth
Dogberry walks by with Conrad and Borachio bound. Don Pedro recognizes his brother Don John’s men and asks why they are detained. Borachio, now penitent, tells the whole story of the window scene and the deception and says that Margaret was innocent. Borachio takes full responsibility for Hero’s death. Claudio cannot believe his ears.

Leonato comes and Borachio also tells him the story and takes responsibility for Hero’s death. Leonato tells him that his guilt is shared with Claudio, Don Pedro and Don John.

Leonato tells them to hang an epitaph at Hero’s tomb, explaining her innocence. He then tells Claudio he is forgiven and that he will give his neice to Claudio in marriage the next day. Claudio can’t believe his good fortune! He agrees to the marriage, sight unseen.

Dogberry is still upset about Conrad calling him an ass, and he tells Leonato all about it, hoping this will increase his punishment. Leonato gives Dogberry some money to thank him for his good work and to get him to leave.

The Happy Ending
Margaret teases Benedick as he tries to write a love sonnet to Beatrice. He is so besotted he stumbles over the rhymes. When Beatrice arrives she asks what happened with Claudio and Benedick says he challenged him. This changes their mood to witty banter regarding what they first loved in each other.

Ursula arrives with the breaking news that all has been set straight in Messina. Hero was falsely accused, Don Pedro and Claudio were misled, everything was the evil Don John’s doing, and he has left the city.

Claudio and Don Pedro put the epitaph on Hero’s “grave.” Claudio promises to return annually in her memory.

Everyone is glad at the happy turn of events. Benedick is relieved that he does not need to fight Claudio. Leonato tells the women that he will call for them and he wants them to come masked when he calls.

Benedick asks Leonato if he can marry Beatrice. Leonato agrees. Don Pedro and Claudio show up at Leonato’s house as planned. Leonato asks Claudio if he is still willing to marry his niece and Claudio agrees. There is much needling back and forth between Claudio and Benedick.

The women come out masked. Claudio agrees to marry the niece unseen. She then unveils herself and it is Hero! She’s not dead! They are all shocked to see Hero alive. She assures Claudio she is still a virgin. Leonato explains that Hero was only “dead” while the slander against her lived.

Benedick asks which masked woman is Beatrice. She comes forward. There is a little friction between them as they argue a bit and realize that their love was based on the tricks played by the others. However, Claudio pulls out one of Benedick’s love sonnets to Beatrice and handily, Hero has one Beatrice wrote to Benedick, and they both give in and accept their love for each other.

So, Claudio is ready to marry Hero, and Benedick is ready to marry Beatrice, and Benedick calls for the weddings to be delayed so they can dance. A messenger arrives with the news that Don John has been caught and returned to Messina. Benedick is too festive and says they will deal with him tomorrow. Now, let’s have some music!

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