Much Ado, more than any other Shakespeare except maybe Hamlet and Twelfth Night, is about sex and death. (The three were written within three years of each other, 1598-1601, with Othello following close behind around 1602; clearly it was on his mind.)
All photos (c) Simon Annand
Claudio isn’t the first man to try to kill a woman he thinks is his, and thinks has had sex with another man. It’s telling that Don John’s aimless plan to sow discord settles on Hero as a way in – he knows more about the workings of misogyny than anyone else in the play except Beatrice. Don Pedro and Claudio eagerly and naively forgive the man who’s just tried to kill them and instantly into their home, but the same forgiveness is not extended to the woman who is thought to be half-glimpsed in an unfaithful sexual embrace – for her, ritual humiliation and death.
No wonder Beatrice pushes so hard against her friends’ and family’s pressure to enter the environment of courtship, when the consequences of a perceived misstep (and it wasn’t even Hero having sex!) are so severe. In Compagnie Hypermobile’s production, while Hero (Suzanne Aubert), Margaret (Aurélie Toucas) have adopted a coping mechanism of ‘shrug and get on with it’, Beatrice (Alix Poisson) has sculpted herself into an above-it-all wit who only jokes about sex to keep it at a distance. Don Pedro (Matthieu Marie), among others, fails to understands this and takes her defensive flirtation at face value; rather, with her sharp wit she is establishing herself as out-of-bounds and therefore off-limits.
In early scenes, Beatrice is in trousers and a waistcoat, with slicked-black hair and (love it!) a pipe. With her clothing, she’s self-consciously excusing herself from the game. For the wedding, and after, she wears a floor-length dress, but a simple one, casual and comfortable; it is a signifier of how her relatively egalitarian partnership with Benedick has allowed her to stop pushing back so hard and finally relax into herself.
Similarly, Benedick (Bruno Blairet) first appears in a costume and hairstyle clearly aimed at entertaining his friends – including a hot pink waistcoat and tartan kilt. In the second act, he tones his ensemble down to an outfit that’s still ludicrous but not so over-the-top. Neither of them are repressing themselves or reducing their identities for love; they’ve given each other breathing space.
One of the lovely graces of the play is how and when Beatrice and Benedick agree to love each other: directly after the horror scene of Claudio’s denunciation and, he thinks, death of his fiancee Hero. Beatrice and Benedick’s love is constructive, healing and fairly egalitarian; their managing to pull it off amid the misogynist shitshow that is that wedding and its aftermath is miraculous.
Compagnie Hypermobile’s Beatrice and Benedick obviously get on well with each other. Their loving each other isn’t so much a revelation of feeling as an agreement to risk the literally deadly dangerous world of courtship and marriage together. They’re both too smart to not understand what Hero’s example tells them about the environment they live in. Poisson and Blairet’s couple is young – in their mid-30s at the oldest – and the romantic history Beatrice hints at to Don Pedro isn’t strongly present. But they already know they could love each other, and maybe already do love – the undecided question is whether the other is willing to jump into the arena with them. In that context, their reading, mocking and discarding each others’ awful love letters in the denouement is a positive, affectionate act. They’re getting married, but mutually agreeing to throw out all the shit that goes with it.
The other characters are well drawn, particularly the other two women (as in many productions, Margaret and Ursula are elided into one character with the former’s name). Hero is small and blonde, young but not naive. She is excited by her impending marriage but not deluded; although Beatrice makes fun of her for being quiet, it’s clear this is learned behaviour as she’s energetic and witty when alone with Margaret. An adolescence with a father like Leonato and a cousin like Beatrice would make anyone wary of speaking up.
Margaret is a Gallic stereotype of a good-time girl, and with all the grousing from the other characters it’s good to see someone enjoying herself. She has clearly done the math and figured if the patriarchy is going to screw her over no matter what, she might as well get a few orgasms out of it (and indeed mimes one onstage for Beatrice’s benefit while she and Hero extol Benedick’s good qualities).
Among the men, most were strong but unmemorable; standouts were a delightfully drunk Borachio (François de Brauer) who was all of 19, a histrionic existential-nihilist Dogberry (Raphael Almosni) dressed in what looked like a homemade superhero outfit, and a still, slow Claudio (Laurent Menoret) whose bald head echoed the death’s head masks the men wore to the masquerade ball. Women of Messina beware.
I saw Globe to Globe’s Much Ado About Nothing at Shakespeare’s Globe on June 3, 2012.