It’s always fun to watch actors that you normally recognize from genre work do Shakespeare, and a special treat when the actors in question are American because… well, we don’t get many chances. While Patrick Stewart and David Tennant get to do Hamlet, and Tom Hiddleston wows us with Henry IV, American actors are usually lounging back with roles in terrible rom-coms that they’re clearly doing to make a paycheck. So it was awfully nice of Joss Whedon to decide he was going to film his own production of Much Ado About Nothing hot on the heels of The Avengers’ success.
Most of the people in the cast are Whedon alums (many from more than one project), so if you’re a fan, expect a whole lot of familiar faces. Clark Gregg (our happily alive Agent Coulson) makes a darling Leonato, Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker are entirely at home with Benedick and Beatrice, and Reed Diamond seems to be having a ball bringing some dimension to Don Pedro. Browncoats will be over the moon to see Nathan Fillion (in anything other than Castle), though in Dogberry he’s found a closer fellow to Captain Hammer’s temperament than Captain Reynolds’.
But the shock of this one for me came from Sean (that’s Simon from Firefly) Maher’s turn as the scheming Don John. How we were kept blind to Maher’s ability to chew scenery using nothing but his eyes all this time is a mystery to me. I’m genuinely hurt that I was unaware of his villainous proclivities before he took on this role. Considering that this character is often the most boring in the play, coming off as nothing more than the “hand of the plot,” it was something of a joy to see John the Bastard played with a little panache. (I mean, he steals a cupcake. If that’s not pure evil, I just…)
Going black and white with the movie was a bold choice for sure, but I do wish it had served in a more visually engaging capacity. There were moments where it seemed as though the choice to film that way was meant to put the audience in mind of Hollywood’s heyday of comedy, from Cary Grant in Arsenic and Old Lace to Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, but the actors Whedon tends to rely on are too modern in their methods to come off that way. The only places where it really seems to harken back are when the slapstick comes on full force, but there’s not enough of it to warrant the visual cue. Then again, it might have simply been done for the fun of it.
There are also Whedon penned melodies to the songs in the play, which seem to rock back and forth between smokily enticing and easy listening. The film is beautifully shot, however, and Whedon clearly enjoyed taking his time with each set-up after going whole hog with explosions and frame-by-frame blows in The Avengers. Also, I hope he’s prepared for lots of awkward company. At the Q&A, he seems to have mentioned that he filmed the whole thing in his house and… wow. It’s a really amazing house.
While Benedick and Beatrice are typically the focal point of the play in every current production, it would seem that Whedon did what he set out to do by making the rest of the action much more relevant. He achieved that with some perfect casting, and by preventing all scenes not involving our favorite sparring duo from speeding up in effort to move on. It’s rare that I find myself ready to give up Benedick and Beatrice when watching Much Ado, but since every other character in this telling was played so genuinely, it was hard not to wonder what everyone else was up to.
The gender politics that underlie Much Ado are more a backdrop here than any other production I’ve ever witnessed. It was as though Whedon didn’t want to touch the material under that lens unless there was something new to say about it. What results are places where a slightly different interpretation has room to peek through; the people who side with Hero once she is slandered by Claudio seem more genuinely outraged on her behalf, and Hero herself has a few moments where her delivery suggests that she is not above being angry for what was done to her. Unfortunately, this is where the modernized setting bites this telling in the backside, especially for characters like Leonato—after appearing such a sweet, level-headed kind of guy, to watch him get furious at the idea of Hero’s lost virginity just doesn’t play. In addition, it makes Claudio come off like a complete schmuck. Which he is, perhaps, but any sympathy you might have held for the way he was misled evaporates this time around.
All in all, it’s absolutely worth seeing, even (perhaps especially) for people who are more keen on the Bard than Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It offers a fresh take on material that is commonly only delivered one way, and that is always worth a look.
Emily Asher-Perrin‘s only sadness about not doing theatre anymore is that she never got to play Beatrice. She was recently on the Geeks Guide to the Galaxy podcast talking about Star Trek Into Darkness, and an essay of hers can be found in the newly released Queers Dig Time Lords. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.