June 14, 2013 § Leave a Comment
If you sit through even one round of amateur auditions for a Shakespeare play, you will quickly learn that Americans have an almost reflexive assumption that the “right” way to perform the Bard is not only in the King’s English but in high rhetorical style as well. Why would they not? Almost all Shakespeare to which they are exposed on big or little screens confirms this image. It does not matter that their teachers tell them Shakespeare didn’t sound that way, (you can hear what he did sound like in this YouTube), or that the acting style they are imitating was developed for the two-thousand+ seats of auditoriums in another era, when pop culture instructs them otherwise.
Now, however, the cast of Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing gives the most unaffected performance of a Shakespeare play ever put on film. For those of fascinated by such issues, the success of this new release might finally reorient the suppositions about the stylistically “correct” conventions for performing Shakespeare.
Whedon’s take on this early comedy is a modern-dress production filmed in his Santa Barbara home over a two-week break in post-production for The Avengers. For a version of the play so aggressively reset visually, it is a remarkably faithful rendering of the play. Far from being an adaptation “based” on Shakespeare, the script is cut lightly and its content almost completely unchanged.* That is, the performance style is not achieved by wholesale rewriting Shakespeare, a lá 10 Things I Hate About You or She’s the Man.
Given the direct simplicity of the performance style, how do they handle the language? For the most part, exceedingly well, but without any displays of technique or stage mannerisms that telegraph the complexity of what they are doing. Compared to Kenneth Branaugh’s delightful, but veddy Britished-up, film of the same play, it is thoroughly American and remarkably understated. No British accents, no grand old men of the English theatre in cameos, and most of all no “beautiful speaking.”
At the core of the film is Amy Acker’s astonishing performance as Beatrice. She delivers an emotionally honest and vulnerable performance as Benedick’s once and future love. While climbing to comic heights for Beatrice’s farcical reaction after overhearing gossip of Benedick’s supposed infatuation with her, (“What fire is in mine ears? Can this be true?”), her performance largely relies on darker notes. Her sense of humor is defensively brittle from the outset. Later, her fierce anger at the betrayal of her cousin, and her confrontations with men responsible (including Hero’s own father), are delivered without any softening concession to humor at all.
Alexis Denisof gives us a less emotionally complicated Benedick, but to the degree that his performance is relying on precedents it is inspired by screwball comedies and not Shakespearean theatrics. For example, he willingly throws away Benedick’s famous kicker that he will allow God to choose his wife’s hair color after a long list of “must have” perfections he imposes. Winking and nudging are unnecessary, however, after completing the entire monologue while running stair laps in his sweat clothes. We already understand Benedick’s vanity. Denisof has taken some critical heat for not matching Acker’s depth, most of it completely overlooking that the subject of Much Ado is male immaturity.
Fran Kranz as the callow Claudio makes much of the young man’s overconsumption of alcohol early in the film as explanation for his character’s adolescent fit of jealousy toward Don Pedro, whose wooing of Hero on his behalf he mistakes for (to use a term he might well employ) “cockblocking.” Claudio’s later rejection of Hero is not intended to be sympathetic, but in this case it is thoroughly believable – even in a modern context – because Kranz has already shown us the young man’s insecurity. He gets Claudio’s teary repentance at the end so right, with such honesty, that the bizarreness of the words he is given to express it passes unnoticed.
Jillian Morgese does not quite keep pace as the spurned love interest, Hero, but she does not drown the role in clichéd signifiers of girlishness either, as is common. (Whedon’s great directorial touch was allowing the character to watch Claudio’s rite of penitence. Her seeing Claudio’s atonement goes a long way to justifying her reconciliation with him in the end, which is often a mystery in itself.)
The revelation in this film is Nathan Fillion’s Dogberry. If you have Michael Keaton’s interpretation in mind from the Branaugh version, then you might think of this as a character straight out of Monty Python which can only be saved with laying it on as thick as possible. Fillion goes the opposite route. He plays, indeed underplays, the role straight. He delivers the relentless stream of malapropism without a single indication they might be jokes, which is what makes them hilarious. Once Conrad has called him an “ass,” he fixates on that insult with the genuine pain of a man who cannot let a slight go. For once the humor seems organic and not pasted on.
In sum, the entire cast performs this script as if it was fresh from the writer’s room. They deliver it with amazing reverence for the words and images, but stylistically they act like their jobs are not to perform Shakespeare the way you “perform” Shakespeare, but the way you act for the camera. The conventional wisdom is that successful film actors are those who affect a complete lack of affectation the best, but however artificial that style is in its own way, it works wonders to freshen Shakespeare here. In this case, it erases all the condescension and all the cultural imperialism with which Shakespeare is usually loaded and lets us concentrate on the narrative.**
Nowhere in the film is this as highlighted as it is in what is traditionally known as the “Chapel Scene.” Benedick impatiently chooses the evening after Claudio’s ruthless rejection of Hero at the altar as the time to declare his love for Beatrice. She, in turn, uses the moment to enlist a champion to challenge Claudio and stand up to the complicit Don Pedro. The scene contains the most notoriously difficult line in the play. When Benedick asks Beatrice to name any task by which he might prove his love she answers simply, but with about five levels of complexity, “Kill Claudio.” Frequently, this line gets a “bad laugh” and the play slips away. In Acker and Denisof’s hands, it plays like something out of their old partnership on Angel. It is hard to believe that Whedon did not add the scene. It seems so Whedonesque. Perhaps Shakespeare can still be out contemporary.
*The average stage production of Much Ado is far more edited than Whedon’s version. The only substantial changes introduced are one piece of genderblind casting, rewording of Benedick’s anti-Semitic quip, and the placing of Hero at her own memorial service. Surprisingly, Claudio’s casually racist remark is retained with the usual cringing taking place onscreen instead of in the audience – to hilarious effect.
**For a dissenting view, see Jason Michelich’s review for Wired, which proposes the whole point of film is to get over narrative and get on with auteurs creating as much aut as possible, a lá Terrence Malick.