Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Much a-Don't

I really really wanted to enjoy the new Much Ado About Nothing--the one he shot in black and white, in modern dress, by Joss (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) Whedon, on a break from The Avengers.  We go way back, Much Ado and I: it is, I think, the first Shakespeare play I ever attended because I wanted to, no pedagogic pressure.  It remains a sentimental favorite (though I have never again seen it so well done).   I still tend to rank it more highly than the Serious People do.

And this production had so much going for it: great director,  country house setting (well:  Santa Monica), near-zero budget, just twelve days--twelve days!--for shooting as in "Hey gang!  Let's do a show!"

I'll have to grant that maybe my particular circumstances worked against him:   the theatre is a single concrete-block room with an air conditioner like a ship's boiler.  I really can't imagine how you would have understood anything did you not know the script fairly well to begin with.   Under the circumstances, I'm honestly not sure whether the blame here falls on Whedon or the boiler air conditioner.

On the other hand, he had plenty going for him that survived the passive-aggressive undercurrent of noise.  This is obviously a cast completely comfortable with Shakespeare, not to say with each other.  More: it is a performance entirely devoid of the curse that impairs so much of bigtime Shakespeare: the ponderous piety, the hey-we're-doing-Shakespeare sort of thing.  That lack itself is almost a game saver.

But--you can see where this is going--the damn thing just doesn't work.  These guys may be pals with good technical training but they aren't funny.  Not being funny, the play finds no way to set off the comedy against menace, not against reconciliation. Time after time, they swallow their best lines so fast you aren't even sure you hear them go by.

Watching the show, I flirted with the notion that the fault might be in the setting: maybe the play--for all the delicacy of its wit--just needs a big stage with plenty of room for pratfalls and bada boom.  Maybe, but then this morning I went back and read Stephanie Merry in The Washington Post

[Whedon] had reminisced about simpler times — leisurely days when he would assemble his friends for impromptu readings of Shakespeare’s plays.

“A little light brunch, a glass of wine and [we’d] read a play,” recalled Alexis Denisof, known for his role as Wesley on “Buffy” and “Angel,” who plays Benedick in “Much Ado.”

With what little downtime Whedon had, he decided to decompress by recapturing that merriment.
 [T]he filmmaking process felt like a family reunion. The narrative unfolds as a series of get-togethers, each character perpetually toting a glass of wine, and there’s some sense that when the director yelled for a cut, the vibe remained lively, if not entirely relaxing.
 Bingo.  We're not watching a production for our entertainment here.  We're watching a home movie of a bunch of old friends having a party.  I dread the prospect that whole battalions of high school teachers will dragoon their charges off to an obligatory viewing on the premise that hey, it is given to us by a man who did Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Fn.:  I've made it s point not to read anybody else's review so far.  But I see that as of this writing, the famously soft graders at Rotten Tomatoes weight it in at a paltry 63 percent.  So apparently I am not alone.

BTW speaking of missed lines, did I just not hear it or did they really leave out my favorite Shakespearean setpiece:

Good morrow, masters. Put your torches out.
The wolves have preyed, and look, the gentle day,
Before the wheels of Phoebus, round about
Dapples the drowsy east with spots of grey.
Thanks to you all, and leave us. Fare you well.


marcel said...

Oh hell. I've been looking forward to seeing this for months. From Kathleen Widdoes' Beatrice & Sam Waterston's Benedick to Michael Keaton's Dogberry, this has been my favorite Shakespeare play since I was 17.

I suppose I should thank you for warning me off, but I don't know...

Buce said...

Please go and tell me whether I am wrong--was it just the boiler?. Mrs. B pointed out that the audience seemed to love it.

Waterston Keaton Widdoes sounds wonderful. I haven't seen a really good Dogberry since 1957. Most--like whoever it was in the Branagh movie--just don't seem to realize it is a joke.