Shakespeare Now: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly Problem

Joss Whedon’s Much AdoAbout Nothing is, without doubt, a good adaptation of the play. Whedon dispenses with the frills and gimmicks and delivers actors performing a beautiful text beautifully. Captured in warm, velvety black and white, the performances were subtle, genuine and thoughtful. The domestic setting worked incredibly well on film. Benedict and Claudius were billeted in what seemed to be Hero’s childhood bedroom, and key scenes went on around the kitchen counter, as they do in so many of our own homes. We really got the sense that this was Leonato’s home, however grand that home might be.  This obvious domesticity brought into play themes of hospitality that often go unnoticed in stage productions. Perhaps this is something that film can do better than theatre – if you’ll excuse the blasphemous suggestion! The ancient duties of guest and host (the backbone of many of Shakespeare’s Classical sources) make the supposed and actual breaches of trust that go on in the house all the more wounding.

Shortly after seeing Much Ado, a friend and I went to see the RSC TitusAndronicus, directed by Michael Fentiman, at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon. We had a brilliant time! Cinema can never match theatre in terms of the experience. The production had a certain camp, insane energy, and is certainly worth seeing. In some ways the production lacked cohesion, but by the second half, it was revelling in the play’s tragi-farce monstrosity. Katy Stephens’ Tamora was ludicrously arrogant, evil, and vain, as she flicked her skirts back to reveal her excellent legs, or clutching Saturninus to her bosom, to seduce and mother him in turn. Her performance at the infamous banquet (another example of transgression of sacred host-guest law) was brilliant, horrific and hilarious. John Hopkins’ easily lead Saturninus was entertaining, as he splashed around in a bath, centre-stage, like some kind of giant pimp-baby. Titus, played by Stephen Boxer, really came into his own in the play’s gory finale, which was staged as a darkly comic parody of an Italian Mafia film. Unfortunately, a few of the other actors, have to be placed, like the overall cohesion of the production, in the bad category. Some seemed to have been cast more for aesthetic reasons than for their ability, which left a few gaps in the production.
Now for the ugly: the ugly problem. Whatever a production does with a play, the text dates back to early modern period and so, inevitably contains some pretty abhorrent examples of racism, sexism, and other bigotry. Both productions described above had a good go at fielding some of these stinkers, but left others oddly unresolved. For example, when Fran Kranz as a slightly buffoonish Claudio stammers that he would marry the veiled woman before him, “were she an Ethiope”, a black woman directly behind him raises an eyebrow, and everyone else looks coolly scathing of this odd faux-pas. Thus, Whedon distances himself and his production from this example of casual, Shakespearean racism. This moment, for it is no more than a moment, is deftly executed, and makes no incursion on the pace and mood of the scene. While I applaud Whedon for this move, this nod to the incongruence between Shakespearean and 21st Century values, throws into sharp relief the distasteful themes that he does not attempt to address. Hero’s virginity is fetishized by the text, and her chastity is certainly absolutely key to the plot, but this fetishization stood out like a sore thumb in Whedon’s modern production.  When Jillian Morgese as Hero declares: “I do live, and as surely as I live, I am a maid”, the focus lingers on her mouth. Her statement of virginity is emphasised and erotised. Despite the production’s sexual liberation of Beatrice, Hero’s virginity is as important to this production as it is to Shakespeare’s. Whedon’s sophisticated critique of other Shakespearean bigotry made me cry out: why not this? Perhaps the cross-shaped ring that Hero wears in the film is a nod to some kind of religious conviction, but if so, it isn’t enough.  Similarly the RSC Titus imposed modern values on the play through a semi-modern setting and through the figure of the child (who became a product of his violent surroundings, killing Aaron’s baby), yet failed to critique the racism inherent to the play.

Can a production win? If a director tackles some, but not all, of the distasteful aspects of a play, she or he seems to mark the remainder out as unproblematic. The problem remains ugly and unsolved.


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