Sunday, May 22, 2011

Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing runs until 25 June. It plays at the Canberra Theatre Centre until 4 June and at the Melbourne Arts Centre until 25 June 2011. By William Shakespeare, directed by John Bell.
I sometimes think I have a bit of a split personality, particularly when I watch theatre. Perhaps it is the curse of the academic - I go through life seeing things on one hand as normal Jodi, and on the other hand as Jodi the Scholar, for whom everything is potential thesis material. Watching Much Ado About Nothing made me hyper-aware of this dual nature of my personality. Luckily, both Jodis really enjoyed it.

Jodi the Scholar is a PhD student who's writing a thesis on virginity and who has a particularly love of Renaissance literature, and so Much Ado is ripe with material. Although the play is obviously about Benedick (played wonderfully in this production by Toby Schmitz) and Beatrice (the excellent Blazey Best), they're not the drivers of the plot. In fact, if all you saw was the first half before interval (to the end of Act III, Scene II, ending deliciously on the word 'sequel'), you'd assume there wasn't much of a plot. Basically, there's this dude called Benedick and this chick called Beatrice, and they make out that they don't like each other but they obviously are head over heels for each other and totes have a history, and so their friends put together a plan to hook them up.

But then in the second half it all gets a bit dark.

Benedick's mate Claudio and Beatrice's cousin Hero are engaged – Claudio saw her, thought she was a bit of all right, and she (and, moreover, her father) was down with it - and it all seems hunky dory. But then Claudio, through a convoluted series of events involving what is played in this production as the mafia, gets it into his head that Hero isn't a virgin, and the plot really kicks off. And instead of taking her aside and going, 'hey, Hero, so I heard this crazy rumour, how about we have a discussion here,' Claudio decides to humiliate her at the altar. Because a woman who's deflowered is a woman who's worthless.

I have written a lot about the commodification of virginity in Renaissance literature - I'm presenting a paper on it in Canada next week - and we have a perfect example of it here. Jodi the Scholar, watching this, was all, I should put more Much Ado in my conference paper. Claudio finds a deflowered Hero not only worthless, but loathsome. And Hero's father Leonato isn't far behind - he screams at his daughter not to open her eyes when he thinks that she's been deflowered. The only one who immediately comes to Hero's defence is Beatrice, who manages to convince Benedick that she's right.

This obviously sits uneasily with the modern audience - both the nature of Claudio and Hero's engagement and the fetishisation of Hero's virginity. John Bell has dealt with this unease in a subtle way, I think... there is something very petty and a bit poisonous about the bromance between Don Pedro and Claudio, and when Leonato tells them that they have essentially killed his daughter, they are sorry, but yet somehow nonchalant about the whole thing. Don Pedro, Claudio and Benedick are a group of three friends who like to joke around together, bros, a sort of Shakespearean Ted/Marshall/Barney How I Met Your Mother trio, and the Bell production really emphasises this, but the Hero incident really does reveal their true colours - Benedick cares enough to stay behind and see that Hero is all right, and then (after coercion from Beatrice) cares enough to challenge Claudio to a duel. And then at the second wedding, when Claudio is to marry the veiled girl (who really is Hero, but which he doesn't know yet), Bell has kept in an often cut line - Claudio says he will marry her even if she is an Ethiop. There was an awkward silence all around the theatre when he said this as everyone realised he really is an enormous douchelord.

However, Much Ado really is a romcom. The plot may focus on Claudio and Hero, whose eventual union leaves the modern audience with an immense sense of unease, but we all know that Benedick and Beatrice, the real focus, will be much happier... even though they'll fight like cats and dogs. There's a concept I remember reading about in my life as Jodi the Scholar called the erotics of talk which I think plays into the difference between the two relationships - Hero/Claudio is based on Claudio thinking Hero is hot. Beatrice and Benedick is based on wit and dialogue - an erotic connection through conversation. And all audiences - Renaissance and modern - are led to believe this is the superior one.

Right. Jodi the Scholar is going to stop wanking on and on about random academic concepts and start talking about the actual show now. Normal Jodi is in the house. And she loved it.

The show stealer was clearly Toby Schmitz's hair - that fifties coiffe he affects at one stage is HILARIOUS - but Schmitz himself was outstanding. At first, his very Australian accent was a little jarring, but after a few lines it seemed perfectly natural. This was an example of excellent, EXCELLENT casting - Schmitz wore this role like a glove. He embraced the awkwardness and the embarrassment and the reluctance to admit change that is at the core of Benedick, and it was awesome. He's not afraid of silence on stage, and some of his funniest moments were silent - or at the least non-verbal, where he made incoherent noises of protest. And the scene where he's under the pool table listening to Don Pedro, Claudio and Leonato talk... priceless.

I really cannot speak highly enough of Schmitz's performance in this role. The only criticism I have is that he did overshadow a lot of the other characters - even Beatrice. Blazey Best was an excellent Beatrice, but with material which is not quite as awesome as Benedick's and such a great performance opposite her, I think it was a little hard for her to live up to. All this said, she really was good. She and Schmitz were a bit adorable together. Okay, a lot.

Bell held off on having Benedick and Beatrice kiss right until the very end and I think that was a great directorial choice. The awkwardness between them when they've admitted that they love each other but they're not quite together yet was just perfect. A lot of versions have Benedick and Beatrice being a little too couple-y too early, and this one didn't fall into that trap. The moment at the end when they read the (saucy) sonnets that each has written about the other was just fantastic theatre.

Jodi the Scholar and normal Jodi both loved this production. I highly, highly recommend it. And seriously - check Toby Schmitz's hair. There's a double meaning in it. Somewhere.

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