Watching a good performance of a play brings much to its audience that cannot be experienced by reading the play. For example, the playgoer sees real people with their individual expressions and mannerisms, and in costumes and settings intended to highlight their actions. If the viewer doesn't understand every word or line, the action or expression often conveys the meaning. Live theater has a special power to excite, inspire, and involve the playgoer with the action and characters on the stage.
A well-produced, well-directed, and well-cast film may accomplish most of what occurs in a theater, with the added advantages of close-ups, speech amplification, greater variety and realism of settings, and special effects not possible on the stage. A film is not necessarily better than a stage production, but rather a different kind of experience with the same story material.
England's Kenneth Branagh is extensively trained and experienced in the production and performance of Shakespeare's plays on the British stage. With his own special viewpoints and skills, he has brought several of them to film, including Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, and King Henry V.
His 1993 film of Much Ado About Nothing is an outstanding adaptation of the play that benefits from his judicious cutting and rearrangement of text, as well as from his casting. He has filmed on location in and around an actual sunny Italian villa of appropriate age and condition, the Villa Vignamaggio in Tuscany. The setting contributes greatly to qualities of timelessness and isolation from the rest of the world, as well as to its visual impact.
The cast of the film adaptation is headed by Branagh himself as Benedick and Emma Thompson (Branagh's wife at the time) as Beatrice. The princely brothers are played by American actors Denzel Washington (Don Pedro) and Keanu Reaves (Don John), and Claudio is played by Robert Sean Leonard. Michael Keaton takes his portrayal of Dogberry to the very edge of buffoonery, and the credulous Leonato is played effectively by Richard Briers. Other characters are portrayed by actors who seem completely comfortable with Shakespeare's language and lines.
The film immediately establishes a lighthearted mood in a new opening scene: First, over a black screen, a voice slowly recites the first verse of the song from Act II, Scene 3, "Sigh no more, ladies." During this recitation, the words of the first verse appear phrase by phrase on the screen. As the second verse is being read, the sun-washed villa is seen at a distance from a nearby hill, first in a painting that Leonato is creating, then in its reality. Then the camera pans across a carefree scene of a picnic with residents of the villa lounging in the grass and enjoying Beatrice's recitation of the verses from a small book.
Soon after she finishes the last line, the messenger who opens Act I, Scene 1, rides in on horseback. The light and leisurely quality of this opening is shaded by Beatrice's obvious enjoyment of the song's cynicism about the faithlessness of men (a theme of the play).
Cuts and Pacing
The action of the first scene follows the playscript sequence, but with cuts of about half the written text, resulting in a considerably faster pace. During the much-abbreviated scene with the messenger, the relationships between Hero and Claudio and between Beatrice and Benedick are quickly established through facial expressions, gestures, and actions as well as the lines.
At the point in mid-scene when Don Pedro and his men appear in the play, another new scene without dialogue is inserted. This new scene shows the villa's residents hurriedly and boisterously bathing and donning clean clothes, while the arriving soldiers do the same. The play's action resumes with a refreshed Don Pedro and his company formally greeting a similarly renewed Leonato and household. The scene continues apace. Overall, the scene is cut by more than half, and yet the omissions are seamless to any viewer who has not memorized the lines or is not following the script.
Branagh has omitted or cut to the bone several subsequent scenes and their lines, sometimes inserting in their place a visual scene that conveys the incident more dramatically than the words. At other times, he has cut lines and thinned out long speeches to keep the story moving and to eliminate unnecessary details. For example, Act I, Scene 2 — a very short scene between Leonato and his brother — is cut completely, so the viewer is spared Antonio's confused report about Don Pedro and Hero. Instead the viewer is immediately plunged into Scene 3, introducing the dark side of the story with Don John and his two confederates, Borachio and Conrade.
Other major cuts include:
Act II, Scene 1: Almost all the initial ambiguous conversation between Don Pedro and Hero has been cut.
Act II, Scene 3, and Act III, Scene 1: Many of the lines among the "conspirators" as they are setting up the eavesdropping episodes of Beatrice and Benedick have been dropped. Instead, the two scenes are primarily the eaves dropping, moving quickly and smoothly from Benedick's to Beatrice's without pause. These two connected scenes are brought to a close with two joyful images superimposed on one another: Beatrice soaring high on a swing and Benedick jumping around in a fountain, both obviously delighted to learn that they are loved.
Act III, Scene 2: Most of the teasing of Benedick by Don Pedro and Claudio has been cut. Instead, a scene is introduced in which Benedick's friends observe him posing before a mirror to adjust his hair and a scarf.
Act III, Scene 2: In the play, Don John lays the foundation for Hero's apparent promiscuity after the dance by talking with Claudio and Don Pedro. That part of this scene has been cut. Instead, on the wedding eve, a few of those lines are used when Don John leads them to a window where they observe Borachio making love to a woman (Margaret) he calls Hero. The scene is enhanced by Claudio's attempt to scream at the pair, Don John's muffling of Claudio, and another view of the lovemakers, immediately followed by a view of Hero asleep in her bed (obviously not in the same room).
Act III, Scene 4: The scene among the women before the wedding has been dropped.
Act V, Scene 3: The scene at the tomb begins with a nighttime candlelight procession to the tomb. At the tomb, Claudio reads the epitaph to Hero and musicians play and sing the short song. No other lines are included.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Branagh retains most of Benedick's monologues in their entirety.
Changes in Sequence
Branagh has resequenced several scenes or parts of scenes to good effect. For example:
In the dance scene of Act II, Scene 1, the overheard snatches of conversation among masked pairs are presented in a different sequence.
The scheme to disgrace Hero with a scene at the window is discussed by Don John and Borachio much later in the film (after Act III, Scene 3, instead of as Act II, Scene 2). This is immediately followed by Don John's revelation to Claudio and Don Pedro (formerly Act III, Scene 2) and the scene at the window (not staged in the play). This complete resequencing and tightening of conversation is quite well done, making the whole deception activity more unified and believable.
Benedick's attempts at poetry and song, originally in Act V, Scene 2, are moved to the morning of the second wedding scene, after the tomb scene (Act V, Scene 3), where it seems most appropriate and is more related to the revelations about poetry in that wedding scene.
None of the cuts and changes in sequence alter the story substantially; instead, they clarify the story line and facilitate its pace. Enhancements. As noted earlier, film can include visual effects and enhancements to the story not possible on the stage.
Several of these have already been identified: for example, the opening view of the villa, the bathing scene, the overlaid scene of Beatrice on the swing and Benedick in the fountain, and the lovemaking scene at the window. Other enhancements of note:
Borachio is seen eavesdropping on Claudio and Don Pedro as they discuss the plan for Don Pedro to talk with Hero about marrying Claudio.
As Don John and his men pass Hero, Leonato, and Beatrice in a hallway — after Don John has made tentative plans to disrupt Claudio's proposal — Don John stops to kiss Hero's hand, a gesture of contempt rather than honor. This is then followed by Beatrice's comments about Don John.
During Benedick's eavesdropping on his friends, he tries clumsily to maneuver a folding chair, which eventually lands him on the ground at the moment when he hears that Beatrice really loves him.
Whenever Dogberry and Verges appear or leave, they gallop absurdly on foot as if they were on horses.
Most of the villa's residents are seen at a huge banquet the evening before the intended wedding. Claudio and Hero are observed in intimate conversation and hand-holding. From that bright scene, the viewer is suddenly taken outdoors where several flashes of lightning burst across a night sky — a fitting transition to the next scene, later that evening, when Don John approaches Claudio and Don Pedro to tell them about Hero's infidelity and to lead them to the window where they can see for themselves. The sequence of visual scenes effectively develops a sense of impending trouble.
Not only does a messenger arrive at the end to announce the capture of Don John, but Don John himself is brought in allowing Benedick to deliver his last line about "devising brave punishments" directly to the prisoner.
The film closes with a boisterous dance of dozens of the villa's residents and guests all around the elaborate grounds and gardens of the villa with the camera moving upward and away leaving the viewer with a beautiful panorama of joyful celebration.
Regardless of the other ways one experiences Much Ado About Nothing — on the stage or from a book — one can expect an enriching new experience watching Branagh's film.