photo by Candice Caldwell
It was perhaps a tad hyperbolic for director Kenneth Branagh to title his 1993 film adaptation Much Ado About Nothing.
With a runtime of just under two hours, Branagh’s version of Shakespeare’s most accessible play featured barely half the ado the Bard had intended.
Warren Wilson Theatre’s production, which opens April 28, restores the missing text and hints at a sense of gravity that was largely absent from Branagh’s popular adaptation. While the production shares a 19th-century Italian setting with the film, which famously opened with a shot of its players lazing at a villa-side picnic in the Tuscan hills, its disposition is considerably less sunny.
“It’s really one of Shakespeare’s most delightful comedies, but it has a darker side,” says director Graham Paul. “We’re trying to make sure the light and the dark is there.”
Much Ado revolves around a noble family headed by Leonato, who is usually called “kindly” in plot synopses. At the start of the play, he, his brother and his daughter are joined by a group of strapping young soldiers who’ve just returned from the battlefield. Romances ensue and are complicated by a case of mistaken identity engineered by another member of the crowd. The mean-spirited prank sparks a series of classically Shakespearean events, with all the requisite lies, disguises, confessions and arrests.
It’s all sorted out in the end, of course, and the lovers live happily ever after — but not before the play covers some tough territory. “It’s a very overtly patriarchal situation,” Paul says of the character Claudio’s rejection of Hero, his betrothed, after thinking he’s seen her with another man. “What we’re really talking about is how men treat women.”
The play’s reliance on social conventions — in addition to the desires of the Theatre’s costume designer — necessitated the 19th-century setting. “It lends itself to a setting with formality,” Paul notes. But the production doesn’t completely ignore the present: The careful viewer, he says, will be rewarded with some “slightly oblique contemporary references.”
“This is not terribly experimental,” he says, insisting that the production offers a fairly straightforward interpretation. “But there are some unusual things. We try to give the audience something other than what it’s expecting; it seems like that’s what theater should do.”
Paul said these new elements — of which he would say only that they include creative staging and a selective use of tango music — may seem especially surprising to those who know the play only through Branagh’s film.
“I very deliberately did not go back to review the film,” the director says. “But as I remember, there were long speeches in the play that were made very short [in the film]. For our purposes, as a student production, we didn’t want to run away from those speeches.”
Much Ado has been an educational experience from the start. The production is coordinated with English Professor David Mycoff’s “Acting Shakespeare” course, and many of the 16 student actors had never before performed Shakespeare on the stage.
The students are joined on-stage by three veteran Shakespeareans: Mycoff, Paul and John Huie, director of Warren Wilson’s Environmental Leadership Center.
“There are three of us older guys,” says Paul, who appears as Leonato’s elderly brother Antonio. “It’s hard for an audience to buy a 19-year-old as 60.”
While the maturity of the performers may matter, the director says that audience members do not need to have reached a certain age to appreciate Much Ado, because the play’s vocabulary is much easier on modern ears than the language used in some of Shakespeare’s more serious works. “It really is accessible,” says Paul.
[Contributing writer Hanna Miller lives in Asheville.]
Warren Wilson Theatre presents Much Ado About Nothing at Kittredge Theatre on the campus of Warren Wilson College. The show will play Thursday, April 28 through Saturday, April 30 at 8 p.m., and on Sunday, May 1 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $10/general, $5/area students, seniors, WWC faculty, staff and alumni. Reservations are recommended. Call 771-3040 for more information.