A closer look at Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing

Laura considers the cultural impact of Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing, in UK cinemas from today...

Silly as we feel writing this about a 400 year old story, this feature contains Much Ado About Nothing spoilers.

On May 16, the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) opened with a showing of Joss Whedon’s Much Ado about Nothing, with Whedon, and stars Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Clark Gregg, and Nathan Fillion in attendance, giving me – both as fan of Whedon’s work and Shakespearean academic – a chance to talk to them about this labour of love.

Much Ado about Nothing is easily one of Shakespeare’s most accessible and enjoyable plays, and Whedon, who used to host Shakespearean read-throughs at his home with various actors and friends from the Whedonverse, has done some really wonderful things with it.

The play, set in Messina, is ostensibly about the love of Hero and Claudio, the young couple whose happiness is almost destroyed by the evil Don John. But really it’s about a second couple, Beatrice and Benedick, who were lovers at some point in the past but, when the play opens, are no longer together and cannot be in each other’s presence without “a skirmish of wit between them.”

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In other words, they are the prototypical rom-com couple: squabbling like children until they realize they’re actually in love and fall into each other’s arms. Terribly modern and terribly funny.

What is not so modern is the Hero and Claudio storyline. Don John tricks young Claudio into believing that the virtuous Hero is anything but – that she is not the “maid” she appears to be, and has actually bedded another man the very night before her wedding. Claudio waits until she meets him at the altar and then publicly humiliates her and refuses to marry her. Only by the accidental intervention of a Shakespearean clown and his assistant (played quite well by Fillion and Buffy’s Tom Lenk) does it become clear that Don John lied and that Hero’s virginity is intact.

It was this that I asked Whedon about. The question of Hero’s virginity, especially when the play is set in modern times and the actress is clearly pushing thirty as is true in Whedon’s production, is a difficult one for any director because it comes off as artificial and makes Claudio out to be even more of a jerk than he would have appeared four hundred years ago.

But for Whedon, I thought it might be even more of a problem. After all, while he’s gotten a lot of credit for the way he deals with female power, the way he writes and portrays female sexuality is even more interesting. Women (even the evil ones) in the Whedonverse are allowed to be fully sexual beings without apology or shame. Buffy’s Willow and Firefly’s Kaylee are two of the more groundbreaking female characters on TV in the 90s and 00s in this respect: Willow’s coming out as bisexual is treated as a non-event (except in that it is the start of a really beautiful relationship) and wide-eyed, ever-optimistic and acutely innocent Kaylee describes the torch she’s carrying for Simon, ending with the observation “Goin’ on a year now, I ain’t had nothin’ twixt my nethers weren’t run on batteries!” For Joss, there’s simply nothing threatening or negative about Willow’s discovery of a more expansive sexuality and no contradiction between Kaylee’s innocence and her own adventurous (remember how she got on the ship in the first place?) sexuality.

So producing a play where the major plot development is all about female sexuality and mandatory shaming is not exactly a natural fit for Whedon. When I asked him about it, he explained that essentially, Claudio is an idiot. “He’s a jock.” For Whedon, it’s not the virginity that’s at stake for Claudio (although the director made the decision not to remove that word or the related word “maiden”), but Hero’s fidelity. He’s jealous and irrational in that jealousy and reflects the kind of shaming so common in our culture. Either way, Joss says, “I don’t really have much hope for that marriage.” Agreed.

In fact, it’s not Claudio who uses the word “virginity” but her father Leonato. When the accusation is made that Hero “knows the heat of a luxurious bed,” Leonato first misunderstands the nature of the accusation and tries to shield Hero by intimating (in one of the more modern moments of the play) that if Claudio has successfully “vanquish’d the resistance of her youth, and made defeat of her virginity,” that the groom is just as much to blame for any slip in chastity as the bride. When Claudio responds that he has left her untouched and reveals “proof” that she was actually with another man the previous night, Leonato turns all his emotion on Hero and attacks her, even wishing her dead. Only the priest stepping in mitigates his fury enough to save Hero from her father.

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One of the things that struck me when I read about the casting of the film was Clark Gregg in this role. Clark Gregg is an intensely kind-looking man. Even when he’s kicking ass as Agent Coulson, you still sense an underlying gentleness that almost belies the character. It was hard to imagine him in a role where he’s raging against his daughter and telling her she’s better off dead. In most productions, Leonato physically attacks Hero – it was hard to see Gregg pulling that off.

I should have known Whedon would find a way to make it work. Gregg’s Leonato does get angry initially, and it looks as though he is about to attack her, reaching for her aggressively. But when he finally grabs her and pulls her violently toward him, he ends up wrapping both arms tightly around her and breaking down in tears. The two of them cling to each other, sobbing hysterically at the personal and social tragedy they are caught up in, and we are made all too aware of something elided in other productions: with her an only child and his wife gone, they only have each other.

But the most compelling change Whedon makes to the play is one that really resonates. In Shakespeare’s text, Beatrice makes reference to having a romantic past with Benedick but gives no details. Joss expands on this by opening his film with Benedick slipping out of bed and getting dressed quietly, as Beatrice pretends to be asleep. It’s apparent that neither of them are happy about them parting, but neither is willing to do anything to stop it. They aren’t mature enough yet to deal with what they feel.

But this then gives a depth to the interplay between the two of them that we rarely see in other productions. In Whedon’s Much Ado, it’s not simply witty banter between Beatrice and Benedick based on some previous flirtation as other directors suggest. There’s real pain and real anger underneath it all, though it’s clear that the anger is just as much if not more self-loathing as a sense of betrayal by the other.

Something else that surprised me were the performances by Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof. Frankly, I was really concerned at the casting of Acker. Beatrice is arguably the strongest woman in Shakespeare’s comedies. Acker herself is quite small and soft-spoken, so I was worried she wouldn’t be able to give Beatrice the power Shakespeare wrote into her. But Acker pulled it off quite well, filling each scene with a presence that quite rightly dwarfs that of the much taller and broader Hero (Jillian Morgese) and playing the role with an air of maturity rather than bravado.

Unfortunately, for me Denisof’s Benedick was less effective for me. It took me a little while to understand why his performance rubbed me the wrong way, because it certainly wasn’t that he didn’t have the proper emotional resonance. Instead, it was his handling of the Shakespearean text itself. Shakespeare’s work has a specific cadence – a meter – which means that the first challenge an actor faces is in not making the spoken word sound too sing-songy.

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Denisof went the other way. His phrasing is odd, and he fails to add appropriate pauses (which helps to break the text up into meaningful chunks, especially for those less familiar with the Bard’s language). Lines that should be distinct were run together, making it difficult for someone even with training in Shakespeare’s language to follow, let alone the average moviegoer. Denisof is, according to Whedon, a bit of a Shakespeare scholar who coached other actors on set by pointing out that “Shakespeare used to phrase things like this, and he’d always put the emphasis here.”

Denisof was likely factually correct in his observations. However, Shakespeare also spoke in a way and dialect that is, especially to American audiences, but even to British ones, difficult to parse. Authenticity must and should give way to the need for understanding.

This type of elevation of historical accuracy over contemporary accessibility, because it occurs in one of the two leads, puts a drag on the production as a whole. It becomes quite distracting, and at times keeps the audience from connecting to plot developments.

That said, there’s a lot here worth seeing. Fillion’s turn as Dogberry is unusual but quite funny. Amy Acker’s confident and still comical Beatrice is a revelation both of character and actress. And the compressed two-week shooting schedule and single location (Whedon’s own home) means quite different choices than say, Branagh’s £4.5 million version, and virtually all of those choices are good.

Perhaps my favorite is the strange juxtaposition of contemporary setting/costume with black-and-white film format which give the production a timeless quality. Let’s not mince words: Shakespeare is a tough thing for Whedon to pull off not because of a lack of ability but because Shakespeare is seen as almost the opposite of what Whedon is famous for: geek adventures. But what he is equally famous for is an audience that will follow him to the ends of the Earth.

So yes, if he builds it, they will come. The question of whether they would enjoy it, and of whether the supposed other end of the spectrum – dedicated Shakespeareans – would take it seriously, was another one entirely. But Whedon, to a great extent, pulled this off largely by doing the kind of production he did: by casting geek favorites (largely in counter-intuitive roles) and doing an excellent job in making the plot and language accessible, he ensures his usual audience. By taking chances, reinventing the Beatrice and Benedick relationship, and letting his palpable love of Shakespeare (rather than geek marketability) drive his directorial vision, he pleases the more traditional audiences of the Bard’s work.

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And so it was at this year’s SIFF gala. As Seattle’s cultural elite mixed with the Microsoft/Nintendo/Google geeks of the Puget Sound area, the response was positive and eye-opening on both sides. The film’s June release will undoubtedly accomplish much the same result on a much larger scale. For pop culture and Shakespearean geeks alike, Whedon’s Much Ado is a must-see this summer.

Much Ado About Nothing is out in the UK from today. Here is a list of the cinemas playing it.

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