This summer Will (the teenager) and I are exploring Shakespeare and comedy. Initially, we are watching three different versions of “Much Ado About Nothing” to discover how widely interpreted the comedy can be by the director and actors. Shakespeare’s plays were written to be performed not read. The audiences were the ordinary folks of the day, mostly. I often think that objective has been lost. I think all too often now, Shakespeare’s plays, for many people, are thought of as something which the kids do at school. Unfortunately, if we don’t demonstrate to teenagers and children that this is not so, that they are to be performed and watched with pleasure, even if we don’t have to, this notion will be perpetual. (For those of you who are not fans of Shakespeare, I am not only referring to his plays, I also include plays by Marlowe, Johnson, Aphra Behn and all the other wonderful playwrights from around the world of yesteryear. It is our heritage.)
The first viewing was of a filmed version of a performance at the Wyndham Theatre starring David Tennant and Catherine Tate. This version was hilariously funny using visual action to elevate the humour in the text. For more on that read “Turning Teenagers Onto Shakespeare – David Tennant and Catherine Tate”, under “Shakespeare Diary on this site.
The second version is the film starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson. This is made as a film in that the setting is an integral part of the whole performance. Branagh’s version is mainly a love story as opposed to the one starring Tennant which is mainly a comedy. Comedy in Branagh’s version is kept to Dogberry and Verges – the constable in charge of the watch and his deputy. It is in keeping with much of Shakespearean comedythat the laughs come from the lower classes. Well, that is how it is supposed to work out.
I have seen Branagh’s version four times before I watched it with Will. It is set in the beautiful countryside of Tuscany, Italy. We see a large Tuscan home surrounded by lush gardens. Girls in long, white, floating dresses languish around the garden and there is Tudor music playing accompanied by the sound of Hey Nonny Nonny. The setting is a typical pastoral idyll. It is a spectacle – there can be no other word for it. Next, the men arrive. We see young, handsome soldiers all in smart uniforms arriving in a perfect line on their horses. They have got long boots on with tight trousers and buttoned jackets. The whole scene is one of distinction between the sexes. The ladies are at home waiting for the men to return and looking soft, gentle and dreamy. The men ride in and look masculine and sexy. Before I continue, I have to say that I have never been a floating, feminine, dreamy sort of girl. My grandfather taught me to get a sneaky left hook in at the age of five and I can write feminist essays which will make the eyes run. However, I have always thought that those men riding on their horses looked deliciously sexy and have always been transported by the whole scene.
I relished being transported to 16th century Tuscany and waited eagerly for the men to arrive on their horses. They arrived, dismounted and marched up to the house in a line. Will hooted with laughter. He stood up and puts his hands on his hips imitating them. He said “we are devilishly manly with our tight trousers and long boots.” I wanted to shove the Crunchie I was eating up his left nostril. I could see exactly what he meant but didn’t really want to.
His main criticism however, was the way Don John, the illegitimate brother of Don Pedro was depicted. (Don John is the villain behind the plot when Hero is set up to look as though she is unfaithful to Claudio before their wedding.) Will, rightly felt that the depiction was too much of a stereotypical villain to be believed. We had a strike of lightening at one point before he entered a room. Will was waiting for his villainess laugh – it came, although it wasn’t too cackling. He felt as if the Don John in the performance at the Wyndham theatre was far superior. He was slightly camp and not too obvious. Villains of that nature work far better as they are far more likely to fool us.
If any readers of this have got teenagers, I would recommend that you try doing this yourself as an experiment. It doesn’t have to be this particular play – it could be any. Get your teenager to watch two or three different versions. You will be amazed at how it helps their critical skills. It is far easier to form a critical opinion of something if you have something else to compare it with.
- Turning Teenagers On To Shakespeare – David Tennant and Catherine Tate. (loonyliterature.com)
- The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare’s Last Plays (Cambridge Companions to Literature) e-book downloads (oorcoya.typepad.com)
- “My heart’s fit to burst!” Kenneth Branagh joins the ranks of acting knights (mirror.co.uk)
- Knighted Branagh ‘fit to burst’ (belfasttelegraph.co.uk)