Play: Much Ado About Nothing
Year Produced: 2006
Sarah Parish – Beatrice
Damian Lewis – Benedick
Billie Piper – Hero
Tom Ellis – Claudio
Derek Riddell – Don John
Along with yesterday’s modernized Macbeth, this snappy, fast-paced Much Ado About Nothing is part of the BBC’s effort in 2005 to present four modern-language adaptations of Shakespeare classics (the other two are The Taming of the Shrew and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which will be reviewed in good time, dear readers.) In this instance, our Beatrice and Benedick are former co-anchors of a regional news program, as well as being former lovers. This is a choice that several modern adaptations of this play decide to make explicit for this dynamic, and while I don’t hate it, I sometimes wonder at the fact that this seems to be the shorthand for why they have the intensely antagonistic dynamic they have at the start of the play.
The obvious comparison that came to mind as I watched this was the opening of the 2012 Joss Whedon adaptation (again, shortly to be reviewed) where, as a sort of prologue, we see Benedick leaving Beatrice’s bed in the morning after a one-night-stand. Here, it’s not so explicit; Benedick, we are shown, was meant to meet Beatrice for a romantic dinner, and he stands her up. In the text, however, all we know is that there is “a kind of merry war betwixt Signor Benedick and her: they never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them.” And of course, when he returns to the co-anchor seat beside her, all of those tensions flare to life.
As Benedick, Damian Lewis is every bit the confident, borderline pompous, swaggering would-be stud that the character calls to mind. Sarah Parish is wonderfully driven and intelligent as Beatrice, although the side-effect of having her and Benedick be past almost-romantic-lovers-something-something-not-sure is that her motivations are driven and colored by this former loss. It’s a choice, and in this case I’m not 100% sold on it being effective in terms of helping to define Beatrice as her own woman, her own fully-formed character, separate from Benedick.
In other words, choosing to take the angle that Beatrice is a spurned and vengeful lover and Benedick is a commitment-phobe, as opposed to making both characters sharp-tongued idiots who love each other so much they can’t see straight and just fall back into the snippy banter foreplay thing whenever the regiment comes to town.
At the same time, though, this dynamic, this presumed backstory between them, does add another level to Beatrice’s character that isn’t present in the original text, and I think works. Beatrice campaigns for a solo hosting gig, and instead, is overridden and Benedick is given the vacant seat because, in the words of Leonard (Leonado) the showrunner/director of the news show, rather than her uncle, “We need that frisson… you have to admit, you were a great team, Bea. Housewives all still love it.” Pushing the two characters together so they can’t avoid each other—and so that she cannot advance her own career without letting the one man she loathes sit there beside her and taunt her with how valuable and useful and appealing he is to viewers, well, that’s a special kind of hell.
The B-story in Much Ado revolves around the relationship between Hero and Claudio—who, in this production, is renamed Claude and played by the lovely Tom Ellis at his most clean-shaven and charmingly boyish. Billie Piper’s Hero is a doe-eyed slightly breathless meteorologist, while Claude is the sports reporter, and the two of them have such a wonderful romance that it makes their wedding scene just all the more heartbreaking. And god, it guts me in every adaptation, when this happens. So the fluffier and cuter it is to begin with, the further it has to fall. And in this one, it really, really does fall.
But what fascinates me about this adaptation is the fairly substantial change they made to the Hero/Claudio (/Don) storyline. In the original text, Claudio is given fairly convincing visual evidence of Hero’s nighttime trysts with other men, and when he rejects her at the altar, he does so because of the importance of female virginity upon entering the marriage state:
Sweet prince, you learn me noble thankfulness.
There, Leonato, take her back again:
Give not this rotten orange to your friend;
She’s but the sign and semblance of her honour.
Behold how like a maid she blushes here!
O, what authority and show of truth
Can cunning sin cover itself withal!
Comes not that blood as modest evidence
To witness simple virtue? Would you not swear,
All you that see her, that she were a maid,
By these exterior shows? But she is none:
She knows the heat of a luxurious bed;
Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty.
What do you mean, my lord?
Not to be married,
Not to knit my soul to an approved wanton.
Dear my lord, if you, in your own proof,
Have vanquish’d the resistance of her youth,
And made defeat of her virginity—
I know what you would say: if I have known her,
You will say she did embrace me as a husband,
And so extenuate the ‘forehand sin:
I never tempted her with word too large;
But, as a brother to his sister, show’d
Bashful sincerity and comely love.
And seem’d I ever otherwise to you?
Out on thee! Seeming! I will write against it:
You seem to me as Dian in her orb,
As chaste as is the bud ere it be blown;
But you are more intemperate in your blood
Than Venus, or those pamper’d animals
That rage in savage sensuality.
Claudio, in the original text, says that although Hero may look as chaste as Diana (the virgin goddess of the hunt, a sworn maiden, protector of chastity and of childbirth) she is, in truth, a Venus in her blood. Intemperate, sensual, lusty, and given over to wanton desire. He vows never to ‘knit his soul to an approved wanton.’ The virgin/whore dichotomy, however, is so much more difficult to bring forward in any modern adaptation, and I applaud the writers of this version that they did not try to do so.
Instead, by making Don (Don John) a creepy, too-close m’lady type to Hero—by showcasing her friendship with him, how he manipulates both her and Claude, how he preys on not only her kind spirit but her socialized femininity (Always be nice, no matter what the cost! He just wants to be your friend! Don’t hurt his feelings, let him down gently!!) the writers do a great job of framing the kind of modern misogyny that can lead an otherwise nice, kind man like Claude down the road to jealousy and suspicion.
In fact, there’s an element to it that reminds me of Ex Machina, where both Caleb (the ‘nice guy’) and Nathan (the enigmatic programmer) make decisions on behalf of a sentient, female-bodied robot who has been programmed to use them both to obtain her own freedom. We’re meant, as an audience, to sympathize with one, and vilify the other, but are they, really, so different? Claude never would’ve believed Don, had he talked to Hero, trusted her, treated her as his peer. Don never would’ve been successful in his manipulations had the social expectations, the framework for Hero’s politeness been different. Claude and Don, then, become two sides of the same coin—and in the end, Hero rejects them both, and does not end up with anyone. “I’m so bored of people using love as an excuse,” she says, “That’s not love, anyway. That’s just possession. And I’m bored of being owned, too. By you, by my dad… I’m just going to look after myself for a while.”
Another clever choice the screenwriters made was to use Shakespeare’s well-known sonnet 116 (‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments. Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, or bends with the remover to remove…’) as a theme throughout. First when Benedick visits Beatrice’s hotel room (they are mistakenly assigned rooms with an adjoining door, to the amusement and frustration of both) and later in the coda scene of their own wedding. It’s a well chosen sonnet, one that echoes both the theme of the play itself but also the marriage vows.
So although this adaptation is quite far removed from the source material, it’s very effective and a thoroughly enjoyable version.