Much Ado About Nothing (film)

by John Stoltenberg

Joss Whedon’s film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing has rightfully been much praised. I hereby add my own huzzahs and urge every theater lover to see it quickly with an audience (don’t wait for it on Netflix!). A sold-out house at an E Street Cinema matinée clearly loved it. And I came away with fresh insight as to why. But before I explain, take a look at the trailer…

Granted, Joss Whedon is a genius (as I first discovered with his TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer). But with Much Ado About Nothing, I realized, he’s done something to illuminate Shakespeare that is an utter astonishment.

What prompted my epiphany was an experience a few years back while attending a production of Twelfth Night at the reconstructed Globe Theater in London. Never before in my reading or theater going had I understood exactly how pivotal the pit is to Shakespeare. That milling throng had by far the best seats in the house (except, of course, they had to stand), because, I abruptly realized, Shakespeare wrote to and for them first and foremost. All those asides in the text? They’re zingers to the pit. All those scenes where the focus is not so much on who’s speaking but really on who’s wordlessly overhearing or eavesdropping? Those too play best to the pit. And the minimalist props called for on the miniplatform that is the Globe stage? To people in the pit, those bonsai become a forest.

I know I’m not the first to observe that every great production of a Shakespeare play illuminates it for contemporary audiences—with some new shading, nuance of character, line reading. The mining expedition that the director, cast, and designers have embarked upon has brought us shiny new gems.

Well, Josh Whedon has just illuminated not only a single play but the bard’s whole  oeuvre—because he has discovered the profound sense in which, for Shakespeare, the camera is the new pit. Yes, a medium undreamt-of in Elizabethan times actually now offers everyone in a theater the perfect analog for pitsters’ experience of being up close and personal.

Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is remarkably minimalist. Black and white, one location (his real home), not much “opening up.” Instead what his camera does mostly is track every last tidbit of human emotion as it flickers across the faces of his fine cast. I doubt, for instance, that the two classic scenes where Benedict overhears how Beatrice loves him and then where Beatrice overhears how much Benedict loves her could ever be played on stage as heartachingly hilarious as they are in this deft filmic rendering. Whedon’s Much Ado is jampacked with such joys. And you know how in typically overwrought proscenium stagings of Shakespeare the director and designer struggle to keep grabbing the eyeballs of an audience with TV-induced ADHD? Well, as Whedon has now shown, the camera has closeups that do that much better. Truth is, Shakespeare never wrote  for proscenium stages in huge auditoriums. So in such vast venues, his plays are always at risk of seeming labored. Yeah, sure, like love’s labors. But, let’s be honest, much oft’ gets lost.

So get thee to Whedon’s Much Ado. And afterward ponder this: Why is studying Shakespeare in high school so darn difficult and dull? Why not have Shakespeare taught in classrooms only by professional actors, with maybe a director standing by? Why trust those canonical texts to pedants who teach because they cannot do? Why not let Shakespeare’s language come alive in the only medium that could conceivably offer the camera any competition as the new pit: the living classroom?