“Royal Shakespeare Company: Love’s Labour Won” (2015)

Autumn 1918. A group of soldiers return from the trenches. The world-weary Benedick and his friend Claudio find themselves reacquainted with Beatrice and Hero. As memories of conflict give way to a life of parties and masked balls, Claudio and Hero fall madly, deeply in love, while Benedick and Beatrice reignite their own altogether more combative courtship. Set amidst the brittle high spirits of a post-war house party, where youthful passions run riot, lovers are deceived and happiness is threatened – before peace ultimately wins out. -Synopsis

I saw this play on Marquee TV (which is an arts and culture streaming service); I signed up for the free 14-day trial. The play is more commonly known as Much Ado About Nothing; it’s my favorite Shakespeare comedy. This adaptation is set in the time period made famous by the recent PBS drama series and movie Downton Abbey. Hero (Flora Spencer Longhurst) and Claudio (Tunji Kasim) are the younger/fresh-faced couple. Beatrice (Michelle Terry) and Benedick (Edward Bennett) are the slightly older/jaded pair content to be singletons. By means of “noting” (which sounds similar to “nothing,” meaning gossip, rumor, and overhearing), Benedick and Beatrice are tricked into confessing their love for each other; Claudio is tricked (by Don John and his accomplices) into rejecting Hero at the altar thinking she has been unfaithful.

We are in an English village w/ an estate fit for royals. In the living room, there is a tall/elegantly-decorated Christmas tree. In one hilarious scene, Benedick hides inside the tree (while Leonato, Prince Don Pedro, and Claudio discuss him and Beatrice). There are songs and dances which come from (or are orchestrated to fit) the early 1900s vibe. We hear “Sigh No More” sung by Balthasar; it tells women to accept men’s infidelity and keep on living w/ joy. In the 1993 film directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, the song is featured prominently in both the opening and finale.

Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,
Men were deceivers ever,-
One foot in sea and one on shore,
To one thing constant never.

Benedick and Beatrice (“too wise to woo peaceably”) are the main interest of the play; they have some of the best (and most memorable) lines. Terry (who became director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in 2017) commented in an interview that “Beatrice felt very deeply,” so humor was a “defense mechanism” she used. I loved how this actress played the (pivotal) scene in the church.

I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow, than a man swear he loves me.

Not till God make men of some other metal than earth [would she consider having a husband]

Benedick is a bit disappointed when his best pal (Claudio) has the “intention to turn husband.” Benedick is also adept at using humor. The life of a bachelor suits him best, and only a rare woman would convince him otherwise.

…But it is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted: and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart; for, truly, I love none.

I wish my horse had the speed of your tongue.

I liked how this production created a balance between the light and serious moments. The humor is played (mostly) w/ subtlety, as would suit Brits from that era. Beatrice, Benedick, and some of the minor characters have scenes w/ physical humor. I was impressed by how light the actors were on their feet (when the scene called for it). You can watch some scenes below!

Beatrice and Benedick meet.
Leonato, Prince Don Pedro, and Claudio set a trap for Benedick.
Beatrice and Benedick say they love each other, but she wants him to kill Claudio!

Top 5 Shakespeare Films (or Best of The Bard Onscreen)

1) Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

If there was just one word to describe this film, it would be “luminous.” Filmed during a Summer in Italy, the FAB cast includes Kenneth Branagh (who directed), Emma Thompson, Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, and Keanu Reeves (whose presence is odd, yet doesn’t spoil the movie). You have the innocent/fresh-faced lovers: Hero (Kate Beckinsale- SO adorable and young) and Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard- who ages quite slowly), In contrast to this hopeful pair, there is the sharp-tongued/witty older couple: Beatrice (Thompson) and Benedick (Branagh). Her father fears that her sharp tongue will render her single for life. Benedick declares that he’ll die a bachelor, BUT his jovial friend/lord Don Perdo (Denzel- looking esp. FAB in leather pants) has other plans. Who doesn’t LOVE Denzel doing light-hearted roles!? Almost everyone (aside from Keanu- DUH!) does well w/ the (complicated) words, incl. the newbie Beckinsale. The veterans (all Brits) in the cast add authenticity and Keaton brings in eccentric humor. Aside from the gorgeous scenery, the music (composed by Patrick Doyle) is amazing (I had the CD back in the day).

2) A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999)

This is another visually gorgeous film (w/ a talented cast from BOTH sides of the pond), though NOT as seamless as Much Ado (also a popular comedy). There are several pairs of lovers, incl. fairies: Oberon (Rupert Everett) and Titania (Michelle Pfeiffer) and humans: Lysander (Dominic West- famed for The Wire) and Hermia (Anna Friel- Brit stage actress); Demetrius (the FAB Christian Bale) and Helena (American TV darling Calista Flockhart); Theseus (character actor David Strathairn) and Hippolyta (Frenchwoman Sophie Marceau). The naughty fairy, Puck, is played by the always great Stanley Tucci (FYI: he even published an Italian-American cookbook a few yrs back- WOW!) I really liked Kevin Kline’s portrayal of Bottom (the weaver who wants to play every part in the play- LOL). Kline is a theater pro, just like Denzel (and it shows). Pfeiffer admitted that she never understood Shakespeare, BUT hey, she does a good job (w/ the best costumes/hair).   

3) Titus (1999)

This movie is NOT for the faint of heart- it’s one of The Bard’s bloodiest tales come alive (thanks to Broadway’s Julie Taymor). Come for the spectacle, BUT stay for the (terrific) acting from a cast that includes Americans, Canadians, Brits, and Scots. Anthony Hopkins is in the title role of the war-weary Roman general, Titus Andronicus, who has captured the queen of the Goths, Tamora (Jessica Lange), her three sons, and her secret/Moorish lover, Aaron (Harry Lennix). Though Tamora begs for his life, her eldest son is slaughtered; Titus, who lost MANY sons of his own during years of battle, shows no mercy.

Tamora vows revenge against Titus and his kin, along w/ her other sons: Demetrius (Matthew Rhys) and Chiron (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Titus’ household includes his kind-hearted brother, Marcus (Colm Feore), his remaining sons: the grown-up/practical Lucius (Angus MacFadyen) and a pre-teen boy, and his only daughter-sweet/innocent- Lavinia (Laura Fraser). She is in love w/ Bassanius (James Frain), an honorable young man running to become ruler of this city against the vain Saturninus (Alan Cumming). Titus’ family become outcasts when Tamora (who is BOTH smart & gorgeous) convinces the new/gullible emperor, Saturninus (Alan Cumming), to marry and ally w/ her family. Who knew that Lange could be SO wonderfully evil!? I loved her chemistry w/ everyone, incl. Lennix (who worked as a teacher before getting into film). Fraser impressed me a LOT also; you hear NO hint of her (real-life) thick Scottish accent.

4) Romeo & Juliet (1996)

The actor who really sells this Baz Luhrmann adaptation is Claire Danes (great at ANY age)! Sure, Leo was the draw for the younger gen, BUT she is the one who raises the game w/ her interpretation of an innocent teen girl in love for the first time. Even is you’re NOT a fan of modernized Shakespeare, give this one a chance (IF you already haven’t). I know MANY high schools are using it to appeal to teens. 

5) Twelfth Night, or What You Will (1996)

Some of you may NOT have seen this film from Brit director Trevor Nunn (which is shot in Ireland and England), BUT it features two strong female performances. A young foreign noblewoman disguised as servant boy, Viola (Imogen Stubbs), unwittingly sparks the interest of a noblewoman from Illyria, Olivia (Helena Bonham Carter). Gender confusion is a common theme in Shakespeare; in The Merchant of Venice, a woman even disguises herself as a male lawyer and wins a court case for the man she wishes to marry. Viola finds herself falling for her boss, Duke Orsino (Tody Stephens- still looking cute w/ quirky facial hair) who pursues Olivia, though she spurns all men (b/c mourning her brother). Look out for Sir Ben Kingsley in the supporting role of Feste, the fool in Orsino’s court. 

Othello (Shakeapeare Theater Company)

Though an active and talented member of Venetian society who has started to assimilate, he is never fully accepted—and it makes him all the more susceptible to the machinations of Iago, the one person he feels that he can trust. 

…Iago’s hatred of Othello stems from his own jealousy.  He resents the fact that Othello promoted Cassio over him, believes that Othello slept with his wife and cringes at the idea that a foreigner—whom he considers inferior—has the success and recognition that he has been denied.  It is a personal vendetta, and he makes the audience complicit. 

-Katherine Peterlin (STC’s Young Professionals Consortium)

As my regular readers know, Othello is my favorite Shakespeare play.  The themes of this play are relevant today (as we heard in the video above).  I saw it back in 2011 at the Folger; you can read that review here.  I went to see this new adaptation, starring Pakistani-American actor Faran Tahir, at STC on SUN, FEB 28 (7:30PM); it was just 5 days after the play opened.  I had a seat in the 3rd row (rare for me); three 20s gals sitting behind me had free tickets (how lucky)!  Sitting beside me were a middle-aged couple who also enjoyed the show a lot; the husband made some comments that proved that his wife was the Shakespeare expert, but he enjoyed it, too.  As for the desis (South Asians) in the audience, I didn’t see more than a handful (including myself).         

Some of you may be thinking: Isn’t Othello supposed to be black (as in African-American)?  But remember that in The Bard’s time, “black” may have had a different meaning.  “Renaissance representations of the Moor were vague, varied, inconsistent, and contradictory,” as E. A. J. Honigmann, editor of The Arden Shakespeare, noted.  “The term Moor referred to darker-skinned people in general, used interchangeably with similarly ambiguous terms such as African, Somali, Ethiopian, Negro, Arab, Berber, and even Indian to designate a figure from Africa (or beyond). Various uses of the word black are insufficient evidence for any accurate racial classification; that could simply mean swarthy,” Honigmann concluded.

MoorishAmbassador_to_Elizabeth_I

Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, Moroccan ambassador to the court of Elizabeth I (some consider him as the model for Othello)

Original Line:  She gave me for my pains a world of… sighs.

Changed Line: She gave me for my pains a world of… kisses.

Above is one of the lines that was changed from the original (I noticed it right away); it’s more suited to the WWI setting of this play.  This is the kind of adaptation that grows on you, though I quickly noticed that the lighting was very well-done (from the 1st scene).  Iago (played by Jonno Roberts, a New Zealand native) is a very strong villain; he’s matter-of-fact, yet funny.  One of his tactics is to tightly embrace several of the individuals (Rodrigo, Othello, and Cassio) who he has ensnared in his web.  Since Roberts is tall, broad, and muscular (like a modern-day military man), this comes off as potentially scary.  I especially liked Iago and Othello’s scenes; the actors obviously have good chemistry and a great command of the text.  All the supporting actors did well, especially the two who played Desdemona and Emilia.

There were two moments in this play that I thought were particularly good.  One was Othello grabbing Iago, pulling him down, and choking him (when the villain first accused Desdemona of unfaithfulness).  The other scene was when Othello went into a fit of epilepsy, falling to the floor, and shaking for several seconds (everyone leaned forward in their seats).  I was sure that this play would get better w/ time; it has been extended through April 2.  Go check it out if you have a chance!