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July 05, 2004

Much Ado About Nothing

Posted by Kenneth Minogue

Much Ado About Nothing
Shakespeare's Globe, London
in repertory 23rd May - 25th September 2004

Much Ado About Nothing is a piece of froth about the battle of the sexes – but such froth! If the basic romantic theme is love at first sight, the next basic theme is the lovers who begin by detesting each other. Hollywood would be lost without it. But Much Ado contains another plot line, and one we can hardly take seriously: a groom who publicly denounces his bride at the altar, leaving her in a deadly faint, because he thinks that she has lost her virginity. Can we take this seriously? In this context of artificial court drama, we must do so. In any case, the play is a marvellous essay on the power of opinion and the importance of reputation.

Courts are full of plots, and here we have two, one benign and the other very different. Beatrice and Benedick are brought together by a contrived eavesdropping in which each learns that the other is concealing a terrible passion, and each responds by requiting it. As Hero says to Margaret as the benign plot develops:

My talk to thee must be how Benedick
Is sick in love with Beatrice. Of this matter
Is little Cupid’s crafty arrow made,
That only wounds by hearsay.
Our instinct for a happy ending rides this theme to a joyous conclusion. Meanwhile, the conventional lovers Hero and Claudio are destroyed by a plot that convinces Claudio that Hero has betrayed him the night before their wedding. At the altar, he denounces her, and the rest, you might say, is drama. Love triumphs.

If ever a play needed the natural underpinnings of male and female actors, Much Ado is it. Remarkable, then, that the Globe's latest production should blow it with an all female cast. The result is a marvellous Beatrice, an attractive but under-testosteroned Benedict, and a Claudio rendered doubly inappropriate being both black and female. It is a production not to be seen if there's any wind, because the voices are too soft.

Thespians in Britain have long since taken up a moral doctrine in which the identities of actors must be subordinated to a generic humanity. By something like a kind of brainwashing, we are to be trained barely to notice and certainly not to respond to the physical identity of the actors. This may be politically admirable, but it makes for terrible Shakespeare, and often for feebly spoken verse. Physical details are important. Falstaff has to have a pillow in his belly, Helena must be taller than Hermia, and a Richard III calling 'A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!' from the turret of a tank (as happened in a recently film) cannot but bring one up short. The effect of this kind of political correctness at the Globe is just to make its performances look like end of term productions.

Kenneth Minogue is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, London School of Economics.

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