Noting on Nothing: The Comedy of Branagh’s MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
29 July 2012
Of the two standard genres, tragedy (drama) and comedy, comedic works often find it harder to endure the test of time. The themes of tragedy—death, grief, sickness, betrayal—have been tragic to people, all over the world, from the beginning of time. The constantly (r)evolving themes of comedy, which are far more wide-ranging, have a harder time connecting with as vast an audience. Put another way, tragic themes always have relevancy, but relevancy in comedic themes often lack permanence.
William Shakespeare wrote (debatably) 37 plays, and scholars often categorized those plays into three genres: history, tragedy, and comedy. In the 21st century, Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories are his most popular, but Shakespeare wrote more comedies than either of the other two genres. Even for masterful playwrights like the Bard, who wrote 400 years ago, comedic plays often struggle when translating to a modern audience.
Kenneth Branagh, who adapted, directed, and starred in a version of Much Ado About Nothing for the silver screen in 1993, faced the challenge of translating the play’s humor into a cinematic comedy that a 1990’s audience would find relevancy in, and, therefore, be entertained by. Ultimately, Branagh found the adaptation’s humor must reside in slapstick, physical comedy, a dose of sarcasm, and clever irony for this adaptation to translate with as much humor to a modern-day film audience as Shakespeare’s play offered his late 16th century theatre audience.
To contextualize, Much Ado About Nothing is comedy which takes place at the Italian estate of Leonato (Richard Briers), a nobleman. When Leonato’s friend, Don Pedro (Denzel Washington), returns from war, Don Pedro and his comrades, Benedick (Kenneth Branagh) and Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard), visit Leonato’s estate. Also with them is Don John (Keanu Reeves), a Prince and hero of the recent war. Shortly after arriving, Claudio falls in love with Leonato’s daughter, Hero (Kate Beckinsale), and the two plan to marry right way. Moreover, Benedick, who has visited Leonato’s estate before, resumes a playful battle of wits with Leonato’s niece, Beatrice (Emma Thompson), who also lives on the estate with her father, Antonio (Brian Blessed). The chemistry between Beatrice and Benedick is indisputable, and, with the help of others at the estate, they, too, fall madly in love. However, Don John, who feels his great victory in war is overshadowed by all the love and celebration happening at the estate, decides to trick Claudio into thinking Hero has been unfaithful to him the night before their wedding. Believing Don John’s trick, Claudio leaves Hero at the altar, vowing before everyone she is a shamed woman. Knowing these allegations against Hero are untrue, the Friar (Jimmy Yuill) formulates a plan to hide Hero away and tell everyone she died of a broken heart when Claudio left her. The plan works and Don John’s trickery comes into light. In the end Hero and Claudio marry, Beatrice and Benedick confess their love for each other publicly, and Don John is punished for his malicious wrongdoing.
One 15 minute scene exemplifying not only Branagh’s approach but also his success in translating Much Ado’s humor to contemporary audiences is the scene in which Don Pedro, Leonato, Claudio, Hero, and Ursula fool the bickering Benedick and Beatrice into thinking each has confessed his/her love for the other. The first half of this scene begins with Benedick’s entrance into the courtyard of Leonato’s estate. He walks in alone, carrying a folding chair and talking to himself about how foolish love makes people act. This is the only scene in which Branagh speaks directly to the camera, and therefore the audience, during his character’s asides. In this particular context, the personalized communication builds a relationship between spectator and spectacle, which heightens the audience’s investment in the character; the character is sharing private thoughts with the audience, and only the audience, involving viewers in the narrative’s playful secrecy and establishing a trust between viewers and Benedick. Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio interrupt one of these asides when they enter the courtyard, knowing Benedick is there. The three deliberately yell out that Beatrice has confessed her love for Benedick, hoping when Benedick overhears this news he, too, will confess his hidden love for Beatrice in return. Benedick takes the bait and hides behind shrubbery, listening carefully to everything Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio divulge about Beatrice’s confessed love.
To emphasize the scene’s humor, Branagh plays up the scene’s physical comedy, and adds sarcasm to his gestures and dialogue. First, upon hearing Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio enter, Benedick, in an aside to the camera, tells the audience “Monsieur Love” is approaching in mocking, sarcastic tone. As a comedic tool, sarcasm works just as well with a modern-day audience as it did with Shakespeare’s. Furthermore, the witty name-calling and cynical face Branagh makes when delivering this line is also a rather timeless comedic approach. Shortly after, when Benedick eavesdrops on Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio from behind a tree, he tries setting up the folding chair he has carried. Unfortunately for Benedick, the chair fights him every step of the way, and just when he thinks he has mastered it, he sits upon it and the entire things folds up while he collapses to the ground. The physical humor is just as timeless as the sarcasm and name-calling. Benedick’s collapse in this preposterously constructed chair is equaled to a fall one might see on MTV’s Ridiculousness. Psychical comedy is often exactly that, ridiculous, and that, in large part, is what makes it so funny. Furthermore, modern-day audience, perhaps more so than Shakespeare’s audience, can relate to “do-it-yourself” furniture; nothing, no matter how seemingly simple, is ever easy to assemble, and watching Benedick struggle with the chair establishes comedic relevancy for contemporary viewers.
During the second half of the scene it is Emma Thompson’s turn, as Beatrice, to keep the humor high when Beatrice eavesdrops on Hero and Ursula (Phyllida Law) discussing Benedick’s love for her. As Hero and Ursula walk around another area of the courtyard, Beatrice follows, hiding behind statues of female figures. Not only are the statues smaller than Beatrice, which makes “hiding out of sight” completely absurd, but what is even funnier is not one of the statues has a head. Not only is this another use of physical comedy, as Beatrice awkwardly and unsuccessfully attempts staying hidden in rather plain sight, but the headless statues add irony to the scene. These women without heads represent Beatrice, a clever woman who has lost her head over her love for Benedick. It is obvious Hero and Ursula are fooling Beatrice with here loud, unfiltered chatter regarding Benedick, and they obviously see her conspicuously lurking around each statute; however, Beatrice, like one of the statues without a head, actually thinks she is hiding from their sight. These headless statues were an effective comedic touch in this scene. Not only is it silly to see a grown woman hiding behind petite headless statues, but the irony of a headless woman makes the scene’s humor more than slapstick; the humor is clever.
In all, the attention paid the film’s humor was necessary for its success. It is not that all the humor in Shakespeare’s play is lost on modern-day audiences, but today’s filmgoers have far different expectation than late 16th century theater-goers; therefore, to adapt the comedy for the screen meant that filmgoers’ comedic expectation must be met. Emphasizing physical humor, sarcasm, irony made the comedy of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing relevant for modern-day film audiences, and that secured Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing’s success.