Investigating past Shakespeare related movies, books, TV specials and theater productions that are still handy for the modern actor and theater company
With the recent news that Kenneth Branagh was going to be appearing with Judi Dench in a new production of “The Winter’s Tale” as Leontes and Paulina respectively in a year-long residency in the West End’s Garrick Theatre, it seems as though Branagh is finally returning to his roots as an old style actor-manager with his theater company branaghtheatre.com. After several years of directing high profile movies such as his recent “Cinderella” and “Marvel’s Thor” and appearing as an actor in a variety of television and film roles, Branagh is coming back to the foundation that made him famous in the first place.
A move that the theatre’s namesake, David Garrick, would approve of. Garrick, himself, was a both a lead actor and business man who held both artistic and business interests equally when working on any theatrical production. He decided to take his own destiny in his hands and thought outside the box never listening to what actors “ought” to do. One of those outside the box ideas was that he essentially created outdoor Shakespeare theater by holding the first outdoor Shakespeare festival. All the Shakespeare festivals around the world owe Garrick a debt of gratitude because he started it all. Yep, two hundred years before Joe Papp, Garrick led the charge organizing outdoor Shakespeare.
Like Garrick, Branagh had achieved some early theatrical success and desperately wanted to produce his own works. So Branagh left the RSC to strike out on his own and created the Renaissance Theatre Company where in the mid to late 1980s he produced stage versions of what would go on to become some of his most successful Shakespeare film adaptations. One of these was a production of “Much Ado About Nothing” that was directed by Judi Dench, set in a sun drenched Italia villa in the Naoleonic era and presented with a youthful energy. If all of that sounds vaguely familiar that’s because all of the elements of Branagh’s 1993 movie were lifted from the 1988 stage production. Dench had always envisioned a livelier take on the classic story of Beatrice and Benedick and she jokingly said “Ken Branagh, he stole all my ideas for the film.” So if the trend continues as it did with “Henry V” and “Hamlet” a few years from now we’ll see a film version of “The Winter’s Tale”, hopefully with both Dench and Branagh.
In this Shakespeare Retro Review, I want to revisit the film that was born out of Branagh’s bold strategy of being his own boss and starting his own company as I think that we can learn a lot not only from this delightful interpretation of “Much Ado About Nothing” but derive inspiration from how it all came about. As actors, we audition like crazy hoping to land roles that will not only pay some bills but also fulfill creative needs and we desperately look for projects to satiate our desire for good parts. Those actors who are often type cast as the “best friend”, “comic relief” or “second spear carrier from the left” and KNOW they could do SO MUCH MORE if only given the chance know how frustrating such situations can be. Well Branagh was there as well and this movie and lot of his early Shakespeare career in film is a tribute to those who say “Screw this I’m making my opportunities happen!” While it’s a hard road to forge your own projects, for those who succeed it can be incredibly fulfilling and gratifying. So let’s dive into Ken Branagh’s “Much Ado About Nothing”.
Coming out in 1993, the film starred Ken Branagh, his then wife Emma Thompson, Richard Briers, and Brian Blessed. These names don’t seem so out of place in a Shakespeare film but this movie is equally noteworthy for who else is it: Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, and Keanu Reeves. At the time, the casting of these American actors was quite the novelty and controversial where many felt that they had no place in a cast with British actors. This snobbery came from both side of the Atlantic but Branagh stuck to his guns in that he not only wanted to work with talented British actors but just with talented actors. Rounding out the cast is a pre-“House” Robert Sean Leonard and a pre-“Underworld” Kate Beckinsale. In revisiting the movie, its not only a trip to see these actors so young and fresh faced but also in comedic and vibrant roles so different than the dramatic and action parts they would later become more famous for.
For those who aren’t familiar, “Much Ado about Nothing” is about the pairing of Count Claudio and Hero, the daughter of Leonato. Claudio and his best friend Benedick are in the service of Don Pedro who has been at war with his half-brother Don Jon. The war is now over with Don Pedro and the armies returning home. An arranged wedding is proposed between Hero and Claudio but this nuptial news is interrupted by the witty bickering of Beatrice and Benedick, two old flames that hurt each other and now take great pleasure in comically insulting each other. Both of them hate each other the notion of love and marriage…or do they? Don Pedro plays cupid in wooing Hero for Claudio but he decides to get Benedick and Beatrice together. Most of the play is concerned with this as each are told that the other is in love with them. The ruse goes very well as both break their defenses down as they ponder the idea of rekindling their love, but a monkey wrench is thrown into the works by Don John. He along with his servants, Borachio and Conrad make Claudio and Don Pedro believe that Hero has cheated on him. Claudio publically denounces Hero in front of the whole town at their wedding. A plan is hatched to clear Hero’s name and in the end all the couples end of together and Don John’s villainy is revealed with the help of the half crazy Dogberry.
One of Dench’s key production choices that differed from earlier “Much ados” was setting the action in a sun-drenched Italy. So Branagh and company filmed on location in Tuscany at a location you would just want to retire to. Emma Thompson as Beatrice starts the film out reading the lines
“SIGH, NO MORE LADIES, SIGH, NO MORE, MEN WERE DECEIVERS EVER”.
These are from a song used later in the play but it gives a nice framework for setting up Beatrice’s attitude toward love and men but also for the laid back, idyllic and pastoral world that we’re about to enter. The picnic atmosphere is interrupted at the news of the armies returning from war and then begins the spirited preparation for their return. Everyone washes up and gets ready including the soldiers and finally Denzel and company arrive to be greeted by Richard Briars as Leonato. The loser in the war is Keanu Reeves as Don John. Now Keanu has received a lot of flack since the film came out for his rather wooden performance as Don John. I take exception with this because Don John is a terrible villain. I think Keanu does his best by playing reserved and irritated as that what’s called for in the role. Don John does not have great monologues like Iago or Richard III and Keanu does well with the scenes that he plays. He a serviceable in the role and quite frankly does well with the dialogue he’s given. So a lot of the flack Keanu has gotten has been unwarranted and people just going along with a party line.
Denzel Washington equally lights up the screen as Don Pedro. Here you can see a kinder, more soft spoken Denzel but still with his classic bravado and twinkle in his eye that audiences know him for. When he sets about playing match maker between Branagh’s Benedick and Thompson’s Beatrice you completely believe him and that as a prince he’s got the personal charisma to convince others to conspire with him. He’s the man with the plan and you totally go along with him. Robert Sean Leonard is perfect as the naïve and inexperienced Claudio. This character is often a thankless role in that he’s very often considered a jerk for the way he treats his bride Hero at their wedding. However, here Claudio and Don Pedro are shown what normally is only described in the text of how Hero has been unfaithful. Claudio and Pedro observe the character of Borachio makes out with a woman who likes Hero. By playing this scene out, Claudio doesn’t come across as a complete a-hole as he’s sometimes depicted in stage versions as his motivations are more understandable to an audience. The other stand out role is Michael Keaton as the thoroughly crazy and word mangling Dogberry. Dogberry takes his job as a cop seriously but acts like he’s perpetually drunk. For those of us who grew up watching Keaton as a comedic actor, this part is a tour de force back to his early films and I think it may actually mark the last time he played such a broadly comic role.
Of course all of the actors mentioned above are the supporting cast, we’re really here to see the main attraction Branagh and Thompson, er Benedick and Beatrice. This is funny because these characters as supposed to be the subplot but since Shakespeare’s day they’ve easily taken over as the leads in the show. Seeing Branagh and Thompson play off of each other is like watching a master class in acting. The chemistry between is palpable and makes you wonder why they didn’t stay together, but that’s another story. The duo make their witty banter and physically comic scenes look effortless. Even more amazing is the darker tone that the play take after Hero is publically accused. Thompson plea to have Claudio killed in the church scene sounds perfectly convincing and Branagh sells the idea of challenging his friend to a duel. Some dialogue in the scene where the duel challenge is issued is done well to maintain the tension as in the full text comic relief is presented along with the more serious motives.
However, this being a comedy all ends well. When Claudio and Pedro have shown themselves to be truly sorry for their actions against Hero a ruse is struck up to have Claudio marry a “twin” of Hero. Benedick tries to woo Beatrice by writing a love sonnet but he’s terrible at it and the scene where Branagh gives Thompson the poem and discuss their feelings is both poignant and hysterical. The final scene is the remarriage of Claudio and Hero and where the truth comes out about the matchmaking to get Benedick and Beatrice together.
Overall, this movie works on so many levels. The American actors execute their parts just as well as their British counterparts with the right levels of passion, comedy and restraint that is required by the script and their characters. Unless you were told that Branagh was the director you would never guess as his attention is never split and all of the actors get the time they deserve on camera. The costuming of simple white dresses for the women and military jackets for the men works really well in its simplicity and any theater company looking to stage the play can easily lift this look and do a lot of variations with it. Branagh and company not only deliver an enjoyable film and a treatment that Shakespeare would be proud of but the film is a testament to any actor or group wanting to take the risk and make something happen on their own. While it’s a scary proposition to act, direct and produce your own projects, Branagh has shown that the fruits of those labors can be fantastic and the maverick spirit is what continues to drive innovation in theater.
You can a copy of “Much Ado About Nothing” here on Amazon.
To read other Shakespeare Retro Review in film click below: