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In Conversation With: Shakespeare Revisited

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In Conversation With is our new series responding to pieces in national media. Today, we’re taking a look at recent reviews of Joss Whedon’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing and the general hullabaloo that comes with any new Shakespeare movie.

It is inevitable that once every six months or so a new version of one of William Shakespeare’s plays bursts on to the literary and cultural scene to either great acclaim, disappointment, surprise, or another extreme emotion. When you have 37 plays attributed to your name and are considered the greatest and most universal playwright in the world, it is hard to avoid retreads that come cyclically like Christmas or autumn (some, more regular than others). Some versions are long-lasting and have cemented themselves as classics in their realm: Orson Welles’ “voodoo” Macbeth, Olivier’s Hamlet, Branagh’s Henry V, and the modernized Taming of the Shrew embodied by Julia Stiles in 10 Things I Hate About You are prime examples, while others—I’m looking at you, Mel Gibson as Hamlet—need to be buried for as long as possible. Hilarious responses, too, have emerged; Percy Hammond called the 1936 Welles production “an eclectic mix of pistol fire and medieval-style combat, post-Catholic, Wiccan-like ritual stirred in with a gallon or three of stage blood,” (only to die soon after), while the late Roger Ebert doted on making or breaking a revival, having a field day with the ’90’s bastardization of A Midsommer Night’s Dream; to be kind, step away from the Shakespeare, Calista Flockhart.

The enduring power of Shakespeare has been written about time and again, so I won’t do that here; however Joss Whedon’s recent adaptation of one of my favorite Shakespeare comedies, Much Ado About Nothing, deserves pause. Whedon’s background in science fiction, the supernatural, and superheroes might initially seem to be in direct contrast with the 16th-century lyricism that is the bard, but he’s not unpracticed; not only has he held weekend Shakespeare “read-throughs” for the past few years at his home, his previous works, Firefly at the forefront of which, had a bard-like melancholy and a deep reverence towards the influence of the playwright on future storytelling. It was even reported, in an interview, that Whedon expressed a “Beatrice and Benedick-type relationship” evolving between Mal Reynolds and Inara Serra.

Furthermore, Northrup Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism breaks down the archetypes in literature, and suggests that all stories can be boiled down to manifestations of similar plots; Shakespeare’s four major genres—the comedy, tragedy, pastoral, and history plays—each follow a similar trajectory within their section. Almost all comedies end with a wedding (or a reunion). A tragedy ends in one or multiple deaths. While Frye does not suggest that anyone can replicate the style of another author, his work suggests a method of comparing works that makes previously unthought-of connections slightly more logical. Whedon’s ability to fuse rich storytelling with substantial dialogue—positioned within singularly engaging plots—makes his proposed adaptation of  the bard far less foreign in light of Frye’s paradigm.

Much Ado opens in limited release this weekend and a review will be forthcoming. Amanda Dobbins of New York Magazine’s Vulture blog reminds us that there was a great earlier film version of the play; helmed by 20th-century Shakespeare himself, Kenneth Branagh and his then-wife Emma Thomson (side note: there was a period of time—about six weeks or so—that I had a recurring dream where I was Branagh’s adopted daughter, and my sole purpose in life was to reunite him with his ex-wife, Em. Disturbing, I know, but most of this was due to Much Ado About Nothing nostalgia. And Dead Again. I loved Dead Again.)

This movie had variable triumphs; the setting of the lush Italian countryside was sublime, and Branagh, Thompson, and various supporting players were fantastic. The Americans actors were…not so much. More recently, the BBC put out an updated version of the comedy staring Damian Lewis as Benedick, Sarah Parrish as Beatrice, and Billie Piper as Hero. Each of these versions, nevertheless the countless fantastic stagings that have occurred in modern memory, have aspects that works exceedingly well, and others that took a big swing in the dirt. It seems only just to consider the things that make a good Shakespeare adaptation, versus the ones that are less than admirable.

Here are a few options that may or may not show up in Whedon’s adaptation, and how they’ve worked in the past: 

Good or Bad: Reimagining the setting

Beatrice and Benedick as quarrelling news anchors? Absolutely. Lord and Lady Macbeth as fry cooks in Scotland, P.A.? Spectacular. There are situations in which taking Shakespeare’s original play and placing it in a modernized (or just plain different) setting works. Shakespeare purposely didn’t add extensive stage direction, as the language often spoke for itself, and while his setting was explicit enough to direct the staging without impeding creative possibilities; the key here is staying true to the essence of the text; although Shakespeare could not have predicted the complexities of a morning news show, no doubt the sight of Beatrice and Benedick sparring in full view of their peers, friends, and a regional audience at large counts as a successful transfer from the less familiar structure of nation-states such as ‘Messina’ in this current climate.

Good or Bad: Using the original language in an unexpected situation

As a general rule, I tend to cringe when someone suggests deviating from the original language to match the setting. Shakespeare’s language was entirely purposeful, and layered; though the cadence and style may seem foreign and stilted to us now, his choice of style ranged, employing iambic verse to convey higher speech and prose to express vernacular—something that would have appeared obvious to his original audience, yet takes slightly more deducing and analysis 400 years later. If Frye’s Archetypes are to be employed here, one could even suggest that the removal of Shakespeare’s language would, in fact, reduce the play to a generic structure rather than an original masterpiece. Having said this, one can understand the ways in which modernizations—10 Things I Hate About You in particular—benefitted from the change in speech patterns, in order to attract a wider audience; utilizing character relationships to stabilize both the setting and the plot, the connection to the original text is made clear and respected thoroughly, despite the language shift.

Some filmmakers do, however, both reimagine the setting and use the original language, as it appears Whedon employs in his upcoming version. Here, I am looking pointedly at Baz Lurhmann and his 1996 reimagining of Romeo + Juliet (note the plus sign rather than the “and” or an ampersand). In the fictional “Verona Beach”, which has a simultaneously post-apocalyptic and grunge-saturated feel, the lovers Romeo and Juliet meet, and speak in perfect iambic pentameter. The result is a highly stylized product, one that works only if all actors and all aspects of filmmaking are committed to the style in question; deviations—stepping into a different setting or cadence—completely shatters the illusion. Difficult, but doable.

Good or Bad: American actors who, accidentally or not, slip into British accents.

This is never good. Holy Keanu Reeves. Just. Stop.

In any event, revisiting both the Shakespeare adaptations of yore and my love of the bard in general brought me to the following quiz of sorts: to answer any questions, yes, I love a good banter and yes, I expect a lot.  – ht

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This entry was posted on June 14, 2013 by and tagged , , , , , , , , .

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