Much Ado About Nothing Play | Sport For Jove

Director's Notes

The Elizabethan playhouse was a very exciting and vibrant open-air theatre, an empty platform on which imagery could come and go, through the actors’ use of potent, evocative words communicated to the imaginations of the audience. As there was no scenery, if someone said “We’re in a forest,” we were in a forest, and the next second, if they said “We are not in a forest”, the forest had vanished and we were transported somewhere else. That technique is faster than a cut in a movie. When it’s evoked by an actor with Shakespeare’s words, there’s a fluidity that is beyond any form of film technique, and it makes fussy scene-changes redundant. There’s just the words, the actors and the audience. It’s a pact of the shared imagination. And from this liberating inspiration we take our cue for this summer season of Much Ado About Nothing.

 

There’s never been a consensus about Shakespeare’s greatness. The disparaging opinions of Voltaire and Tolstoy are well known, but my favourite is still this one, expressed in 1780 by Frederick the Great. I love it because it is so transparently wrong!

 

“To convince yourself of the lack of taste which has reigned in Germany until our day, you only need to see the abominable works of Shakespeare – the whole audience goes into raptures when

it listens to these ridiculous farces worthy of the savages of Canada! How can such a jumble of lowliness and grandeur, of buffoonery and tragedy, be touching and pleasing?”

 

It is a play of contrasts indeed! As Peter Brook has written in his latest book of reflections on the Bard, The Quality of Mercy [2013], Shakespeare knew that “lightness needs the shadow of darkness

to make it real”.

 

Despite the dissenting opinion of Frederick the Great, Much Ado About Nothing has always been popular with audiences, ever since it was first written and performed around 1598. The title page of the 1600 Quarto announces that it had been ‘sundrie times publikely acted by the right honourable, the Lord Chamberlaine his seruants’. The poet Leonard Digges wrote in the prefatory poem to his 1640 edition of Shakespeare’s poems:

 

“…let but Beatrice And Benedicke be seene, loe in a trice The Cockpit, Galleries, Boxes, all are full”

 

It contains one of Shakespeare’s most charismatic and endearing heroines, his wittiest and most inventive word-play, and intellectual self-importance bested by the desire to love and be loved in return. It’s a play governed, even poisoned, by male rivalry, in which conventions of gender and status shape emotional attachments, in which men and women fear each other, and in which only the most accidental of providences can save an innocent woman from the devastating effects of slander, and a man from death by combat. For all its light-hearted wit, the battle of the sexes that the play dramatizes risks real consequences and real casualties.

 

The play has two major plots, both of which turn on staged scenes, or ‘gulling’, and on fabricated accounts of love or sexual betrayal. It’s a play concerned with the dangerous vagaries of human communication, a play about confusion and disclosure, deliberately designed by its author to enact onstage the explosively ambiguous processes of misinformation, misapprehension and misdirection. Shakespeare’s story is set in the gossipy confines of a leisured household in Messina on the island of Sicily. For the Elizabethan audience, locations like this evoked a world of ungoverned passionate tendencies:

 

People in hot climates are more jealouse, eyther because they are much given and enclined to Love naturally, or else that they hold it a great disparagement and scandal, to have their Wives or their Mistresses taynted with the foul blot of unchastitie; which thing those that are of contrarie regions, and such as live under the North Pole, take not so deepe at the heart. [Benedetto Varchi, 1615]

 

It’s important that a production of Much Ado create a history for the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick. Even if the audience isn’t privy to the specific details of that back-story, we need to lay their foundation. We assumed that at some time in the past, Beatrice read their deepening relationship as blossoming love, and whether or not she pushed too hard too soon, Benedick got cold feet and disappeared. It’s an unresolved conflict between them, and the wound is still raw. They’re both always looking for the upper hand, and always playing to the crowd, always trying to get the biggest laugh.

 

Repartee is more than a linguistic device to Beatrice and Benedick - it’s a way of life. Both characters express themselves with a vibrant verbal energy, and it’s an energy that carries a potent sexual charge. It’s the energy of flirtation, the dance of attraction and elusiveness that constitutes the mating ritual of these two wits. Why do they keep touting such self-congratulatory images of themselves as the wittiest people in any room if they aren’t trying to hide something vulnerable inside? Their banter is a way of avoiding the truth, a front for their emotional dishonesty, and we can see early on in the proceedings that here are two people who are ripe for transformation. The ‘merry war’ between Beatrice and Benedick is not so much a battle of the sexes as a painful but very funny baptism. They both refuse to take the plunge into romantic love. The ‘mountain of affection’ is the elephant in the room and Don Pedro’s therapeutic trick makes it impossible for them to ignore it.

 

Whereas Beatrice and Benedick are extremely verbal creatures – “they never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them” – Hero and Claudio barely speak to one another before they are heading to the altar, and when Claudio offers his hand in marriage to Hero, they don’t actually know one another at all! They have looked on one another, but not noted each other [as many scholars have pointed out, in Shakespeare’s time, the word ‘nothing’ was pronounced ‘noting’]. It’s a conventional, sensible marriage, but who would want it? This is actually the main plot of the play and it dramatizes the terrible consequences of not looking, of not engaging in depth. The chastening days that follow on from Claudio’s sadistic, public vilification of his future wife will lead to some serious self-examination and re-evaluation on both their parts.

 

At the play’s end, by way of clear contrast, Beatrice and Benedick have truly noted one another, and not as idealized images of romantic perfection. In their union, Shakespeare offers us an optimistic vision of the human power to learn from experience, to know oneself more deeply, to open our hearts and our minds to a richer experience of ourselves and others. He encourages us to follow our hearts, yes, yes indeed, but wisely, with thoughtfulness and clarity of vision. Be open, be honest, and fall in love.

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Cast & Crew

Cast

Friar / Verges
Balthazar / Watch
Margaret
Dogberry
Leonato
Don John
Beatrice
Don Pedro / Watch
Borachio
Benedick
Innogen

Crew

Director
Sound Design / Videography
Designer
Technical Manager/Operator
Production Manager
Choreographer
Assistant Stage Manager
Assistant Stage Manager
Assistant Stage Manager
Stage Manager
Fight Director / Movement
Lighting Designer

Venues / FAQ’s

Norman Lindsay Gallery

The Norman Lindsay Gallery at Faulconbridge is the home of the Magic Pudding and displays the work of artist and writer Norman Lindsay (1879-1969). Run by the National Trust, the sandstone cottage and landscaped grounds are open 7 days a week and there is a specialist gift shop and cafe.