Much ado about quite a lot, actually

I recently complained rather bitterly, and with plenty of justification, about the Shakespeare Theater Company’s embarrassing, terrible performance of Ben Jonson’s classic The Alchemist. This negative evaluation was only intensified by the contrasting modernized performance of Much Ado About Nothing approaching the end of its run at the Folger Elizabethan theater (without question the most charming stage in our nation’s capital). While the Shakespeare Theater Company got just about everything wrong in its modernization of The Alchemist — effectively ruining Jonson’s masterpiece for cheap laughs and extravagant, irrational and often inexplicable costumes — the production at the Folger is a textbook example of how to get it right in modernizing and adapting the context in which Elizabethan theater can be effectively revivified with a contemporary feel without damaging in any way the integrity of the original and, indeed not only adding but recovering lost meanings to the play.

Timothy Douglas’ inspired decision to reset the action of the play from Messina to an unspecified Caribbean milieu quite literally puts the Carnival in the carnivalesque of one of Shakespeare’s most freewheeling, giddy comedies. The main atmosphere of the setting is Afro-Caribbean, but the multiracial cast calls to mind more the cosmopolitan immigrant neighborhoods of large US cities then the West Indies themselves (though they, too, are multi-racial societies of course). Not only does the Carnival atmosphere work perfectly with the script, the reggae and hip-hop influenced soundtrack is also surprisingly effective and the recasting of the singer Balthasar as a DJ is positively inspired. It may have been a fairly simple exercise, but it was a pretty brilliant gesture to perform his famous song from Act II, Scene III as a reggae/hip-hop rap:

Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,
Men were deceivers ever,
One foot in sea and one on shore,
To one thing constant never:
Then sigh not so, but let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into Hey nonny, nonny.

[You’ll simply have to imagine the backing chorus of three ladies chanting, "Hey nonny, nonny, Hey nonny, nonny, Haaayeeeeeeeee" in the contemporary hip-hop/soul manner, but trust me, it completed the effect hilariously and doing nothing less than justice to the original.]

The cast deserves enormous praise, particularly Doug Brown’s impeccable, dignified Leonato, Rachel Leslie’s delightful and deliciously feisty Red Stripe-swilling Beatrice, and Roxi Victorian’s well-calibrated vulnerability as Hero. But the show-stealer clearly is Alex Perez as Constable Dogberry, one of the more challenging of Shakespeare’s clowns to perform effectively. Dogberry is a standard Shakespeare character, a low-born, officious and exceptionally foolish officer given to a stream of non sequiturs and malapropisms (think Elbow in Measure For Measure, and his immortal denunciation of "a notorious benefactor.") But Dogberry’s lines in and of themselves cannot carry the day as with some similar characters in some other Shakespeare plays. This character requires a performance of comic panache, and sufficient bravado and physical absurdism to fill out the relative weakness of some of his dialogue. When performed well, Dogberry is an immensely memorable character, but is otherwise forgettable at best. Perez, strutting, dancing around, gesticulating wildly and continuously resorting to his expandable metal pointer as an impotent symbol of empty authority, carries it off beautifully.

I began by referring to the recovery of meaning, and one of the most important aspects of recasting Much Ado in a Caribbean setting with many of the characters employing West Indian accents (to a greater or lesser degree), and even introducing some elements of demotic West Indian English (referring to "she" when standard forms of English would employ the word "her," for example) recaptures a crucial pun central to the title and the fundamental conceit of the play itself. The "nothing" in Much Ado has multiple meanings, some of which are obvious, but others less so.

It most obviously refers to the fact that Hero’s alleged infidelity is untrue, and that therefore the narrowly averted tragedy was based, literally, on nothing. Second, it refers to the comedy’s own triviality, an announcement at the start that what we are going to enjoy is a light soufflé of enjoyment rather than anything heavy and ponderous. Third, and this is perhaps less obvious now than it was during the Renaissance, nothing in this instance is also plainly a reference to "no thing," which is in both Elizabethan and Freudian terms, a reference to the vagina as signified by absence (the whole play, of course, is about romance and coupling).

A fourth, and largely lost — but in this production I think marvelously recovered — meaning, of the "nothing" in the title comes from the homonym that existed in many parts of England during Shakespeare’s time between the words "nothing" and "noting." In a sense, the play is much ado about noting, since it is a comedy of misrecognition, misapprehension and false impressions. The Caribbean setting and the West Indian accents restore this homonym: i.e., in much West Indian English, "there’s nothing going on over there," would be phonetically indistinguishable from "there is noting going on over there." The new setting therefore restores a sense that what we are watching is much ado about noting, a comedy about the interplay between recognition and misrecognition, apprehension and misapprehension.

Finally, this recovery of the original homonym adds a fifth dimension to the play on words built into the title of Much Ado, that noting also refers to music and musical notes, which play such a strong role in the play (especially in this production). When Don Pedro, tried of wooing Hero on Claudio’s behalf demands a song as a form of relief, Balthasar at first demures:

Don Pedro: Now, pray thee, come;
Or, if thou wilt hold longer argument,
Do it in notes.

Balthasar: Note this before my notes;
There’s not a note of mine that’s worth the noting.

Don Pedro: Why, these are very crotchets that he speaks;
Note, notes, forsooth, and nothing

It is at this point that Balthasar launches into his legendary, "Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more" performance ["Hey nonny, nonny, Hey nonny, nonny, Haaayeeeeeeeee"].

Don Pedro has it: "Note, notes, forsooth, and nothing," are the puns at the heart of the conceit in Much Ado and already announced in its title: perception, misapprehension, music, sexuality, and the lightness of a carnivalesque in place of an incipient tragedy. Everyone involved in the Shakespeare Theater Company’s lamentable massacre of The Alchemist should get their sorry behinds over to the Folger before the final performance of Much Ado this Sunday and learn how it’s done.