A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions
Much Ado About Nothing

That “Much Ado About Nothing” was a hit in Shakespeare’s day the swift publication of the play in a Quarto edition in 1600 bears testimony.  If you need proof that it is still one of the Bard’s best comedies, if not the best, see the Royal Shakespeare Company production playing, after its sell-out in Stratford, at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, in London July 27 through August 22.

Directed by Gregory Doran, with the “merry war” between Harriet Walter as Beatrice and Nicholas Le Provost as Benedick expertly acted, this is a rollicking and joyous production.  Ms. Walter ably conveys all the nuances demanded in the role of a woman who disparages love in general and the object of her affection – Benedick – in particular. At the same time, she makes us realize that Beatrice jests about love and marriage to conceal her fear of remaining a spinster now that the marriage of her cousin Hero is imminent.  Ms. Walter’s Beatrice is a mature, intelligent woman who needs only the encouragement of her friends’ trick to bid goodbye to “contempt” and “pride” because “no glory lives behind the back of such.”  

The “skirmish of wit” between Beatrice and Benedick, set the tone for the clever exchanges that characterize Restoration comedies like “The Way of the World.”  The  passages in “Much Ado” are delightfully well spoken by Ms. Walter and Mr.Le Provost, whose Benedick easily handles the long-winded, rhetorical lines.  Here he is defining the woman he might condescend to marry: “Rich she shall be, that’s certain: wise, or I’ll none: virtuous, or I’ll never cheapen her: fair, or I’ll never look on her: mild, or come not near me:…of good discourse, an excellent musician, and her hair shall be of what color it please God.”

The pair are true originals, devised by Shakespeare to round out the main plot he found elsewhere.  Hero (Kirsten Parker) and Beatrice are daughter and niece to the Governor of Messina, at whose home the action takes place. The time is the 1930s with the soldier-followers of Prince Don Pedro in Italian uniforms returning from the war in Africa.  The villain Don John, Pedro’s bastard brother, and his men wear the black uniforms of the fascists.

It is Don John (Stephen Campbell-Moore) who devises a plot in which Hero is falsely accused of infidelity.  When her hot-tempered fiancé Claudio (John Hopkins) denounces her at the marriage altar, Hero expires.  To uncover Don John’s plot, Shakespeare invents a comic “watch,” volunteer citizens who ineptly police the streets.  Their leader, Dogberry (Christopher Benjamin), prides himself on being “as pretty a piece of flesh as any is in Messina.” When his keystone-cops-like men capture the instigators, Dogberry hilariously presses charges, conducts their “excommunication,” and brings them to justice.  Dogberry’s malapropisms (“comparisons are odorous”) find their way, along with Shakespeare’s witty couple, into later Restoration comedy.  That period so cherished the original pair that in some productions the main plot was cut and the comedy renamed “Beatrice and Benedick.”

Designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis, the women wear printed, flared dresses or wide-legged slacks in a sun-drenched terracotta piazza with gardens and arbors providing suitable hiding places for overhearing  by Benedick on his hands and knees, and Beatrice receiving a hosing that explains her cold the next morning.

The Royal Shakespeare Company in all its productions delivers the full texts of all Shakespeare’s plays and the actors are to be commended for making the lines clear, understandable, and meaningful, while preserving the rhythm and poetry that distinguish these works.