Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s wilder comedies. It does not have the fantasy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream or hinge its entire plot on double lives like Twelfth Night. It lives on a series of interwoven short stories about royalty celebrating a great military victory.
Leonato, the governor of Messina, allows Don Pedro’s men to stay in his home for a month after their victory. Claudio, a member of Don Pedro’s court, falls hopelessly in love with Leonato’s daughter Hero. Beatrice, Leonato’s niece, trades barbs with Benedick, a friend of Don Pedro. Meanwhile, Don John (Don Pedro’s brother) plots against the celebration to spite his brother’s victory. Also, a foolish police constable named Dogberry attempts to maintain order with the sudden influx of guests.
The tricky part of adapting Much Ado About Nothing is making sure all the players are clearly introduced in the story. Joss Whedon’s one stumbling point in this otherwise enjoyable adaptation is just that.
Benedick and Beatrice introduce themselves, as do Hero, Claudio, and Don John. Don Pedro assumes limited narrator duties and Leonato randomly interjects thoughts throughout the story. The gender is flipped on one of Don John’s men to give him a love interest–confusing a villain with Margaret, one of Hero’s ladies in waiting–and none of the police force is introduced by name, Dogberry included.
Lines are shuffled around and truncated to shift the focus to Benedick and Beatrice to the detriment of the other major stories. Don Pedro and Leonato barely exist outside of the context when their main role in the play (Don Pedro especially) is to establish that context. Whedon clearly wanted to keep the adaptation short and snappy, but it becomes difficult to parse out the first act of this adaptation.
That is not to say that Whedon’s approach is poor. This is actually one of the livelier adaptations of a Shakespearean comedy to come around in years. The setting is vaguely modern and fueled with alcohol. All of the “Oh, Lord”s are changed to expletive “Oh Lord!”s and every sexual innuendo is hit like a pick-up artist trying out every smooth line he has during last calls. There are pratfalls, joke fights, well-placed sight gags, and an able cast of actors that know the text well enough to sell the comedy in a believable way.
Much Ado About Nothing really comes alive where so many stage productions and adaptations before it fall apart. The turn in Act IV to tragic circumstances is so hard to get right. The first three acts are all about misdirection, mischief, and merriment. This makes the turn to tragedy in Act IV so much more powerful when it’s done right.
Whedon knows how to play up drama. The wedding (Act IV, Scene 1), my favorite scene in all of Shakespeare’s works, is shocking here. It took my breath away. I was crying in the theater, so engrossed in the moment that I forgot everything I knew about Shakespeare’s comedic form and the play itself. To see these characters so alive with alcohol and shenanigans fall apart to scandal and crime is heartwrenching. The pace grinds to a halt and freezes the moment so you’re forced to endure the full pain of Don John’s heinous scheme.
Much Ado About Nothing, like any of Shakespeare’s great comedies, is at its best when the turn to tragedy is unexpected and organic at the same time. Joss Whedon achieves that in this gorgeous black and white adaptation. Once the players settle in and establish themselves, it’s an engrossing ride.
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