On Tuesday night I went to Stafford Castle's Shakespeare Festival to see Much Ado About Nothing, performed en plein air. I didn't really know what to expect: anything from am-dram to the Globe, but my boss and I had free tickets because we'd written the notes on the play for the programme. So I bought a load of other tickets for my friends and off we went. We dined on crisps and beer (the vaunted dining experience was inexplicably closed) and hoped for the best.
The best is what we got. The actors all had strong backgrounds in theatre (and, of course, they've all been in Doctors, Holby City and Casualty, the proving grounds for this generation's thespians) – I'd seen several of them in repertory plays at the New Vic theatre in Stoke. The setting was a bit odd: an English garden just after Armistice Day 1918 - flag bunting, delightful upper-class summer clothes or officers' uniforms. A cash-in on the current commemorative feeding frenzy? If so, it was a cheap and easily forgotten gag: the play soon took over. Perhaps, though, the setting had a deeper purpose beyond entertainment. The play starts with the successful end to a war: not many 'gentlemen' dead and of those few, 'none of any name' says the Messenger: Leonato replies that 'a victory is twice itself when the achiever brings home full numbers'. I doubt that any 1918 productions would have used a contemporary setting simply because those lines jar so much – perhaps this production is silently commenting on the current elite craze for presenting WW1 as (in the words of one of my War Studies colleagues) 'a triumph'.
Much Ado is a weird play. It's a comedy: you can tell because it finished with a couple of marriages, and there are comedy proles, chiefly Dogberry the Constable, played with relish as a stage-Welshman by actual Welshman Phylip Harries. Shy but romantic Claudio enlists his friend Don Pedro to woo posh, hot Hero for him and in the end it all works out fine. But in the two sub-plots, much nastier things are going on. Ageing Benedick (a bachelor soldier who is as they used to say 'not safe in taxis' with young women and always has a handsome young man around) and Beatrice spend most of the play wittily sparring with each other and declaring that marriage will never happen, leading the youngsters to set them up to fall in love with each other, while moustache-twirling villain Don John pays some low-lifes to fake Hero boffing Borachio the night before her wedding, with her betrothed witnessing it all from outside the window. The wedding ceremony starts and Claudio is as vilely misogynistic as it's possible to be ('Give not this rotten orange to your friend…he knows the heat of a luxurious bed; Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty') breaking off the match. Eventually, to prove her virtue, Hero agrees to have her death announced in an effort to punish Claudio and disprove the accusations against her. Even the comedy characters take sides: sad old Benedick tries to challenge Claudio to a duel in defence of Hero's honour and is cruelly rebuffed with scorn. In the final act, the villains are apprehended, Claudio keeps his word to marry Hero's cousin, sight unseen, as recompense for killing Hero (I know, I know): when the veil is removed, it's really Hero, and all's well that ends well (sorry).
As I said, it's a weird play. The first act or so set it up as a comedy of manners - life returning to sweet jests after a war. The older couple of Benedick and Beatrice are set up as the butt of the humour as well as inevitable lovers, the rude mechanicals (and the toffs actually) come up with quite a lot of surprisingly effective knob gags, but the Don John plot, Claudio's rapid descent into misogynistic hatred and the faked death move it rapidly into the territory of Romeo and Juliet and perhaps more saliently, Othello. Don John is Iago - overlooked by his brother perhaps but motivated more by depression and loneliness, he wrecks Hero's reputation and marriage simply because misery loves company:
I had rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in
his grace, and it better fits my blood to be
disdained of all than to fashion a carriage to rob
love from any: in this, though I cannot be said to
be a flattering honest man, it must not be denied
but I am a plain-dealing villain. I am trusted with
a muzzle and enfranchised with a clog; therefore I
have decreed not to sing in my cage. If I had my
mouth, I would bite; if I had my liberty, I would do
my liking: in the meantime let me be that I am and
seek not to alter me.
Shakespeare's plays are scattered with these jealous poisoners: what's truly dark about Much Ado is the way Claudio responds to this slur on Hero's virtue. That women's reputations depend on their virginity is part of the character of the times – but Claudio responds too quickly with heavily sexualised imagery direct from the dark pool of male suspicions about female sexuality:
you are more intemperate in your blood
Than Venus, or those pamper'd animals
That rage in savage sensuality.
Her father's no better: it's a long time before his brother and the friar convince him that further proof is needed. His first thought is of Hero's guilt, and that she'd be better off dead.
Wherefore! Why, doth not every earthly thing
Cry shame upon her? Could she here deny
The story that is printed in her blood?
Do not live, Hero; do not ope thine eyes:
For, did I think thou wouldst not quickly die,
Thought I thy spirits were stronger than thy shames,
Myself would, on the rearward of reproaches,
Strike at thy life. Grieved I, I had but one?
Chid I for that at frugal nature's frame?
O, one too much by thee! Why had I one?
Why ever wast thou lovely in my eyes?
Why had I not with charitable hand
Took up a beggar's issue at my gates,
Who smirch'd thus and mired with infamy,
I might have said 'No part of it is mine;
This shame derives itself from unknown loins'?
But mine and mine I loved and mine I praised
And mine that I was proud on, mine so much
That I myself was to myself not mine,
Valuing of her,--why, she, O, she is fallen
Into a pit of ink, that the wide sea
Hath drops too few to wash her clean again
And salt too little which may season give
To her foul-tainted flesh!
In this context, Benedick's resistance to marriage (to anyone, not just Beatrice) comes to seem truly light-hearted compared to what's in the heart of the aristocratic men around Hero.
So what we really have is a tragedy disguised as a comedy: it's pretty uneven, especially in the last couple of acts as the play lurches between Dogberry, the Benedick and Beatrice flirtation and Hero's fake funeral. What does it all mean? I think the lurching between registers is a social critique. Here we have a post-war society which is dangerously immature. The war's been won without any suffering. Love seems to be a pretty game, and other people pawns in it, hence the way all the toffs decide to force Benedick and Beatrice together. But when the crunch comes, it takes just one malignant individual to set family against each other, to bring out the worst in our handsome young hero, to ruin a good woman's reputation. None of these people are equipped to deal with the deeper emotions. Perhaps this is the reason for the post-1918 setting. The Edwardian toffs in their country homes were simply not prepared for the type of war and post-war society into which they were thrust. The endless summer of what seemed to them a Pax Britannica was over, and finding a new place was proving difficult, to say the least.
The unevenness of the play is what brings this out, I think: light comedy only a few lines away from genuine hatred, grief and horror. The ending works, I think, because the characters agree to stick to the old rules of honour and atonement, but it's a real effort. They don't have the emotional or philosophical resources to deal with what spills out of them when the polite surface is disturbed, and their only solution is to perform the old rituals as though good manners conquers all – a response we see in the poetry and theatre of the Restoration too. Does it work? Well, WW1 was followed by WW2 in short order, and some would say the Holocaust casts its shadow over all literature thereafter.
Apologies if I've ruined a lighthearted night out for you! I'd recommend a trip to see this production: the actors are superb, the setting lovely and the play fascinating. Ignore my over-analysis, have an ice-cream and revel in the verbal sparring.