Following my screening of Joss Whedon’s Much Ado about Nothing, one of my fellow critics used the unkind term “community college production.” Another one said “that’s kind of the point,” and it is. Shakespeare belongs to everyone, not just the Branaghs and Oliviers of the world. His language is magical, his stories resonant across the whole of human experience. We still perform them because they still speak to us – to Whedon no less than the RSC – and while bad productions certainly exist, they can’t dent the legacy that the greatest practitioner of the English language bequeathed to the ages.
So here sits another version of Much Ado, filmed at Whedon’s own house over the course of twelve days and definitely a little scruffy around the edges. Of the cast, only Clark Gregg and Alex Denisof feel at ease with the material, and while Whedon nails the tone, he can’t quite make the leap to a modern setting. On the other hand, such shortcomings don’t diminish his passion for this play, or the eager enthusiasm with which the company undertakes their duties. This feels for all the world like an intimate affair: a group of college buddies getting together to see what they can make of this play. It’s not always brilliant, but it is always heartfelt. And thankfully, Whedon make sure the audience feels welcome as well.
For the uninitiated, Much Ado is basically the god king of rom coms. Bickering duo Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedict (Denisof) had a fling once upon a time and it ended badly. They’re brought back together some time later very much against their will at the estate of Leonato (Gregg), where their friends conspire to hook them up again even as they hurl wicked verbal barbs at each other. They hate each other so much, it must be love… a formula copied by countless thousands of romantic tales ever since, none of which carry one-tenth the potency that this does.
A secondary couple provides the dramatic impetus, as their by-the-numbers courtship comes under duress thanks to the villainous Don John (Sean Maher). It’s much less interesting than the central romance, but it gives the plot something to do while the real purpose of the exercise engages in their delightful face off. The problems of the subplot were inherent in the material and Whedon handles them with as much tact as anyone could expect.
The intimate setting further helps Much Ado, as does the black-and-white cinematography which eschews the pomp and circumstance normally associated with Shakespearean productions. That’s beneficial when considering Whedon’s presumed motivation: to do something intimate and simple after the sprawling blockbuster of The Avengers. The director’s fans are always happy to heap praise upon him he doesn’t entirely deserve, and his foray into Shakespearean territory provides him more cover than usual. How can we hate it? The script is great, the actors are game, and Whedon certainly knows his way around a camera. He also understands timing and delivery, without which his cast would largely be at sea and the production utterly lost.
As it stands, he gives us glimpses of the inspiration that helped define his career, something which speaks to his devotees as well as more casual viewers (like me) who never quite understood what all the fuss over him was about. It can’t hold a candle to Kenneth Branagh’s sumptuous 1993 production – which remains the definitive version of this tale – but again, that’s kind of the point. Whedon’s enthusiasm for the subject is no less than Branagh, and while he lacks the former’s polish and poise, he still evinces a deep understanding for what it’s all about. That, coupled with the comparatively modest ambitions, helps make this Much Ado a modest delight. More importantly, it reminds us again of the range and versatility of the material… something that 500 years has failed to blunt and which remains as accessible today as it was when it delighted audiences at the Globe. Whedon hasn’t created the best version of the tale, but he clearly understands what makes it tick. We don’t need anything more to plunge right into the fizzy cocktail served up before us.