Monday, April 11, 2011

Michael5000 vs. Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing (BBC, 1984)

The Play: Much Ado About Nothing
Directed by: Stuart Burge (1984), for the BBC series

Genre & Setting: A comedy, about three parts ha-ha comedy to two parts nasty-stuff-that-turns-out-OK-in-the-end comedy. The setting is an Italian villa, and in this production you’ve got pretty much exactly the costume and sets you would expect in a traditional Shakespeare staging.

The Gist: This is the first Shakespeare I’m watching in a second production (within this project, anyhoo) so I may be repeating what I gleaned as the gist in the far more boisterous, spectacular, and moneyed Kenneth Branaugh production.

So: you’ve got this pair of smart, funny aristocrats, Beatrice and Benedic(t?), who are nuts about each other but have been bantering so long that they’ve become, as people were saying a few years ago, “frenemies.” Both have sworn they’ll never marry. They need to be cajoled into realizing they love each other, and all of this business is of course quite jolly.

Then there’s this other pair, Claudio and Hero (I may not have the names exactly right, because I’m watching rather than reading, right?), not especially smart or funny but also nuts about each other. Unfortunately, Claudio has (if I understood it right) a villainous illegitimate half-brother who desires to undo his happiness! An initial plot to sabotage Claudio’s wooing-by-proxy (and by the way, wooing-by-proxy? WTF?) fails despite Claudio’s dimness, but a second plot to make him think Hero has been unfaithful succeeds spectacularly. Due to his dimness. This plot line is not only improbable but a little distasteful, and the ickiness of its climax and even its “happy” resolution really drag down the mood.

There’s also a bit with a small posse of dim constables, which is not bad. Unfortunately – this is the part where I tell Shakespeare how to write – these characters are introduced so late in the play that they do more to interrupt the flow than they do to advance the plot.

The Adaptation: I don’t know if I’ve mentioned yet that these BBC productions, which seem to be the standard go-to Shakespeare-on-film, and which make up the bulk of the non-famous plays available in my library’s collection, kind of suck. Having said that, this is easily the best of the ones we’ve watched so far. The funny parts were actually funny, although you miss having an audience to laugh with, and although it does not begin to compete with the big Big BIG Branaugh production, it seemed a pretty solid, workmanlike translation to film.

Clocks In At: around two and a quarter hours. There were a modest number of scenes in this presumably complete or near-complete performance that were not in the Branaugh, but these mostly served to show that ol’ Ken and/or his screenwriting team had pretty solid judgment.

Pros: The only major value-added of the BBC production over the Branaugh is that this one lacks Michael Keaton’s excruciating turn as Dogberry the Constable. The constables in the BBC production are competent, but I still think that these scenes have the potential to be hilarious in the right hands, and we haven’t seen that yet.

Cons: There is a character – I don’t know his name – who is a buddy of Benedic(t?) and Claudio, a major speaking part. In this production, he is more than a little campy, which creates an odd edge and sets up a number of unintentionally funny moments. Otherwise, the usual BBC soap-opera production values are a shame, but not a deal-breaker.

Prognosis: The back half of this play – particularly the humiliation of Hero – is unpleasant enough to discourage repeated viewings. And since the Branaugh is available, and lots of fun, why not use it for your initial watching?


Elizabeth said...

Don John is Don Pedro's illegitimate half-brother; Claudio is Don Pedro's protege. I'd like to see this BBC production - where did you get it? And did you know that the BBC is redoing a bunch of the plays in a modern format?

Jennifer said...

@ Elizabeth, Have you seen the BBC adaptations you're mentioning? I think the Much Ado one makes some very interesting choices, but my favorite is Shrew. (I may have missed a couple, though.)

Rebel said...

I don't think I'll watch this one as I'm pretty enamored with the Branaugh version. But you're right about the constable in that one... I fast forward it every time. Too horrible to watch.

Elizabeth said...

@Jennifer - no, I haven't, but I'd like to.