Joss Whedon’s Screwball Shakespeare: ‘Much Ado About Nothing’
Look, I’ll admit it. I loved literature but I initially found Shakespeare hard work.
We studied one play every year at high school. ‘Romeo and Juliet’. ‘Macbeth’. ‘The Merchant of Venice’. They are the ones that spring to mind.
I remember the terrible Dire Straits song that we had to listen to (our teacher being very ‘modern’) and a lot of wringing hands — blood that could never wash off. I remember little deaths and the screams of laughter when our teacher, blushing, revealed what those words meant. I remember terrible films, full of arch overacting and stiff costumes, that were an endurance test.
Or, even worse, the outings to plays where the whole audience of schoolies could not stop giggling at the sight of men in tights, the laughter so loud it drowned out the actors’ lines.
I found Shakespearean language and most poetry (until I came to Emily Dickinson) like a locked box. I couldn’t find a key until Year 11 when I had a teacher who was a passionate guide. As he started to work carefully through the language with precision, I began to realise that Shakespeare was funny.
And possibly relevant. I started to enjoy the shape of it on my tongue. Sex and death? As a teen I was obsessed with both. Wasn’t everyone?
Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Romeo + Juliet’ put an end to my lingering distrust. It was fresh, exciting, operatic in scope, full of sound and fury (of course it signified something) and the romance was palpable.
I remember sitting in the Orpheum in Sydney, thinking about whether to buy another ticket and start over again. Most of all, I finally understood the writing, the language, without having to struggle.
Look, I’ll admit it. I’m a fan of Joss Whedon. I watched Buffy episodes all in a row on Friday nights with my best friend and then Angel in parallel so I could enjoy the interconnecting narrative. Then I watched everything else he ever made. I saw him speak at Melbourne Town Hall when he toured here.
A friend commented that he could make toast and it would be interesting to watch. But in more recent years he’s been under intense scrutiny.
When I heard he was taking on Shakespeare, I wasn’t really surprised. He chose ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ because of its location (it could be made all in one spot) and then filmed it in the house where he used to live in Santa Monica with his family, over 12 days.
I saw the film in an audience of fans. And this time the crowd was laughing for the right reasons. Like Luhrmann, Whedon has a talent for translation.
The film is shot in black and white, yet contemporary, with parties that never end and paparazzi who capture the dregs. It traces the oblique nature of relationships and the shifting spaces between what men/women say and what they really mean.
The actors deliver their lines with Whedonesque drollness and the physical staging is innovative in confined spaces. Amy Acker as Beatrice and Alexis Denisoff as Benedick battle it out wordily in screwball comedy style, while Whedon brings in all his other regulars, often against type.
It feels like a family affair and in fact it was. His co-producer on the film (and wife who later exposed him for being a hypocrite and cheating on her) Kai Cole did a Skype interview at the film session I attended. She said that for many years they had regular Shakespeare readings in their home and the film emerged with the same actors involved.
‘Much Ado’ has the manic energy that low-budget collaboration with great actors seems to create, even though it’s not improvised. (This “real” feel reminds me of Cassavetes.)
As a writer and director, Whedon has always been interested in girls and women — their place in society, how they subvert the stereotypes — and here he cleverly questions Shakespeare’s assertions about women’s rights and virtues from within, while sticking tenaciously to the script.
Lines I remember as tedious he manages to subvert with a quick nod of the head, or a smirk, so they can also mean the opposite. And as always he remains focused on nerds — the smart, cute, funny types who win using brain rather than brawn.
For teenagers (or adults like me) coming to Shakespeare today, this film is a great way in to the heart and energy of the language; Whedon is a passionate, acerbic and sexy guide.
This review originally appeared at RealTime.