Stage Door Review 2023

Much Ado About Nothing

Friday, June 30, 2023


by William Shakespeare, directed by Chris Abraham

Stratford Festival, Festival Theatre, Stratford

June 16-October 27, 2023

Friar Francis: “What we have we prize not to the worth

Whiles we enjoy it, but being lack’d and lost,

Why, then we rack the value, then we find

The virtue that possession would not show us”

The Stratford Festival’s latest production of Much Ado About Nothing is a prime example of two vices currently plaguing productions of Shakespeare – dumbing down and revisionism. Both vices assume that Shakespeare’s plays will not connect with a modern audience unless they are “fixed” in some way. In Much Ado which is almost exclusively a verbal comedy, directors ramp up the physical comedy as if prat falls were the height of comedy and as if comedies had to be mindless “laff riots” in order to be successful. Revisionism takes the narrow presentist view of judging plays written four centuries ago and chiding them for not representing today’s values which, presumptuously, are assumed superior.

What is so disappointing about this particular production is that it is directed by Chris Abraham, who has previously directed such subtle, insightful productions of Shakespeare’s comedies such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2014 and The Taming of the Shrew in 2015. It is extremely depressing that a director I had regarded as one of the few directors in Canada who prized conveying the text of Shakespeare’s plays in the fullest possible way, should fall victim to these modern trends.

To take the second point first, Abraham has had playwright Erin Shields provide “additional dialogue” for Much Ado. One may wonder why now in Stratford’s eleventh staging of the play it suddenly needs “additional dialogue”. The answer, of course, is that the play does not “need” new material at all if anyone pays close attention to the text.

Shields’s two main additions are a prologue to the play delivered by Beatrice and a speech given to Hero before she is finally married to Claudio. The prologue basically covers all the main topics of Beatrice’s satire of men and their self-importance that Shakespeare’s Beatrice makes in the course of Shakespeare’s play. All that Shields adds is the idea that women don’t need men because they can always “strum their private lute”. The point of the prologue is to shift the perceived emphasis in the play from men to women, yet if one looks carefully at Much Ado, one can’t help but note how Shakespeare balances the male- versus female-centred plots such as the tricking of Benedick into love followed by the tricking of Beatrice into love.

There are more male characters outside these two plots but they fall into the categories of self-proclaimed villains like Don John and plodding idiots like Dogberry. Shields and Abraham may want to force the play be about women, but that is unnecessary. By the end, without any additions, it is the women, not the men who come off best.

Shields’s second main addition is to give Hero a speech censuring the men of the play for believing in her purported infidelity so easily. What annoys Shields is that after Hero reveals herself still to be alive, Shakespeare gives her only four lines to express herself, “And when you loved, you were my other husband. /… / Nothing certainer: / One Hero died defiled, but I do live, / And surely as I live, I am a maid”. Shields thinks Hero should be furious that Claudio so easily believed the dumbshow that the villain Borachio staged of Hero’s infidelity on the eve of her wedding day.

One might agree if one did not know that Shields and Abraham have so altered Shakespeare’s play as to remove the key scene that shows Claudio in a good light. Missing from the current Much Ado are all the lines of Act 5, Scene 3, when Claudio visits the tomb of the supposedly dead Hero. Claudio reads the epitaph he has written: “Done to death by slanderous tongues / Was the Hero that here lies: / Death, in guerdon of her wrongs, / Gives her fame which never dies”. The spoken epitaph continues for four more lines and is then followed by a song of lament, after which Claudio pledges, “Now, unto thy bones good night! / Yearly will I do this rite”.

In the original Shakespeare gives Hero so few lines because she already knows of Claudio’s shame, devotion and contrition. Claudio’s repentance at Hero’s tomb is often staged as a major scene. Here Abraham merely has Claudio put flowers on Hero’s shroud and leave. Thus, Abraham and Shields have to cheat us of this scene in order to “give Hero a voice”. Sorry, but suppressing contrary evidence is hardly a sound way to make a case.

It also shows a profound misreading of the play. Don John is the self-professed villain of the play, not Claudio, Benedick, and Leonato. There are two major deceptions in the play regarding Hero. The true villains like Don John deceive Claudio by showing Hero as unfaithful, but the good people, like the Friar, Leonato and all the women, also deceive Claudio by claiming she is dead. Hero is the victim of one deceit. Claudio is the victim of one deceit then the beneficiary of a second in which Hero is complicit.

This altering of Shakespeare’s text supposedly to make it more modern, is related to the general dumbing down of the staging. Both processes assume that Shakespeare’s original text needs to be fixed. In a manner quite unlike his direction of any other plays, Abraham encourages the least subtle acting possible from actors who are normally excellent. The first act in particular is filled with mugging, funny voices, funny walks, lots of falling down, characters imitating other characters and actors speaking directly to the audience as if this were the panto version of the play. Abraham and Shields allow characters to insert “Okay?” as a question after certain lines to get a laugh no matter that it is an anachronism and ruins the rhythm of the line. Nearly every main character does a shrug, hands out, palms up with bulging eyes to signal “What was that all about?” We’re fully into anything-to-get-a-laugh territory which I had thought Stratford had finally abandoned and which I never before has associated with Chris Abraham.

Abraham has an unhelpful view of the relationship of Beatrice and Benedick. Leonato says the two are waging “a merry war” with always “a skirmish of wit between them”. Abraham places the emphasis on “merry” rather than “war” so that the pair’s constant sniping at each other never appears serious. Abraham emphasizes this by having Graham Abbey as Benedick laugh after every one of his witticisms which instantly deflates their trenchancy. As Beatrice, Maev Beaty tosses off her lines so rapidly we often miss their point.

The difficulty in depicting the battle between Beatrice and Benedick as simply a game means that the two duping scenes lose their point. How can either Beatrice or Benedick really be surprised to hear the other loves them when their sniping has never had an edge? I longed for the Beatrice and Benedick of Deborah Hay and Ben Carlson in Stratford’s Much Ado from 2012 or Martha Henry and Brian Bedford in 1998, who knew how to make the couple’s sniping vicious and their turnaround all the more comic. We only get the Abraham we know when he moves into the more serious world after the supposed death of Hero. Then he has Abbey and Beaty act in a nuanced, urgent manner better suited to them and certainly more suited to the entire play.

Austin Eckert and Allison Edwards-Crewe are not well paired as Claudio and Hero. Eckert seems unable to give Claudio any personality and provides no hint that he is primarily a military man which is both his strength and, when hearing of Hero’s infidelity, his weakness. Edwards-Crewe has a voice which becomes harsh under pressure and in the large space of the Festival Theatre it is under pressure most of the time. We understand her Hero’s general emotions of shame and anger but very seldom her individual words. In the women’s duping scene of Beatrice, Akosua Amo-Adem as Ursula shares Edwards-Crewe’s lack of clarity of speech and we only know the import of what the women say by Beaty’s reactions.

In contrast, Abraham has left the playing style of several actors untouched by the farcicality he forces especially on Act 1. One of these is the Leonato of Patrick McManus, who plays the role as serious except for the men’s duping scene of Benedick where the old man allows himself a little fun. Another is André Sills as Leonato’s brother Don Pedro. Sills plays the role with such skill and presence, owing much to his ability to speak Shakespeare so clearly, that he makes this the most memorable Don Pedro I’ve ever seen. In an exception to his overblown style in Act 1, Abraham allows a moment much more typical of his more nuanced style. Don Pedro offers to marry Beatrice and Beatrice, acknowledging his well-meant intention, turns him down. Sills conveys Pedro’s exquisite embarrassment at having misunderstood the situation, while Beaty allows pity for a change to tinge her mirth. If only Abraham has directed the entire play with such insight into the complexities of human feelings.

Also excellent is Michael Blake as the evil Don John. It’s rather too bad that Blake should have to play two characters, Don John and Edmund in King Lear, who both blame their villainy on their bastardy. Unlike Blake’s strangely comic Edmund, his Don John is steely and unemotional, his only goal being the destruction of other people’s happiness.

Unfortunately, the usually fine Jakob Ehman gives a peculiar performance as Borachio, Don John’s chief henchman. Shields has enough hubris to add her own jokes to Shakespeare’s text including one wherein Borachio says he is licking frogs to find which one will send him out of space-time. This line apparently leads Ehman to perform Borachio as if he is constantly on a psychedelic high from bufotoxins. His slurred words and odd accentuation mean that his key explanation becomes incomprehensible concerning how he and Hero’s maid Margaret deceived Claudio into thinking Hero was entertaining another man.

Two more key actors who play their roles without textual meddling are Gordon Patrick White as Friar Francis and Josue Laboucane as Dogberry. Friar Francis, unlike some of the other men, is certain that Hero has been slandered. White projects enough presence of mind and force of personality as the Friar to quell the confusion that rises in the other characters. The Friar is the one who formulates the plan to announce that Hero is dead with the certainty that the shock of this news will not only bring the men back to their senses but bring them to repentance, an act of contrition that Shakespeare believes in but not Shields. The Friar’s plan looks forward to contrition as the path to redemption for a jealous man that Shakespeare depicts more than a decade later in The Winter’s Tale (1611).

Luckily, neither Shields nor Abraham fools with the character of Dogberry played with such gusto by Laboucane. Laboucane plays the role absolutely straight speaking one malapropism after another without a hint of self-awareness – exactly the opposite of how Abbey was directed to play Benedick. The result is that Laboucane’s Dogberry is hilariously funny without any of the schlock of Abbey’s Benedick.

There is an enormous irony to Abraham’s use of Shields’s “additions” to Shakespeare to make the play more acceptable to a modern audience. In 1681 English Poet Laureate Nahum Tate (1652-1715) wrote his version of Shakespeare’s King Lear entitled The History of King Lear. He, like many in the Restoration and 18th century thought that theatre should depict not realism but ideal behaviour. It was thought cruel of Shakespeare to punish good characters like Cordelia and Lear who had suffered so much. Instead, Tate’s Lear has a happy ending where Cordelia and Lear live and Lear regains the throne and Cordelia marries Edgar.

After Tate other plays and operas sought to “correct” the “flaws” in Shakespeare and provided happy endings for Romeo and Juliet, Othello and Hamlet for the virtuous must be rewarded and the wicked punished. We ridicule this way of thinking and yet what is happening in this Much Ado? Shields and Abraham clearly feel the men in the play have not been sufficiently punished for believing that Hero was untrue so give Hero a speech berating them and excise Claudio’s speech of repentance.

If the Stratford Festival feels that Much Ado and Richard II are flawed plays incapable of being produced for modern audiences as written, then why is the Festival staging them at all? These “corrected” or “improved” Shakespeare texts are no longer Shakespeare anyway. If modern playgoers can’t handle the complex questions that Shakespeare’s plays ask, then the Festival should wait until audiences and directors are mature enough to cope with them as they are. Falsifying the past is not the way to understand it.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Maev Beaty as Beatrice and Graham Abbey as Benedick; Maev Beaty as Beatrice, Allison Edwards-Crewe as Hero and Akosua Amo-Adem as Ursula; Austin Eckert as Claudio; Patrick McManus as Leonato; Josue Laboucane as Dogberry and John Kirkpatrick as Verges. © 2023 David Hou.

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