“Hath no man’s dagger here a point for me?” cries Leonato (Gregg) in Much Ado About Nothing. Father of the allegedly virginal Hero (Morgese), he’s on the point of giving away his daughter in marriage when an intrigue orchestrated by the devious Don John seems to reveal her as a wanton hussy. Within minutes, paternal pride turns to rejection.
What kind of a father is this, to doubt his child so quickly on hearsay? A Shakespearean father, certainly. And re-imagining Shakespeare’s play, Avengers director Josh Whedon must have pondered how best to transfer 16th-century concepts of familial honour to the screen. Unlike Ken Brannagh, whose Much Ado romped through the Tuscan landscape in period costume, Whedon has chosen radical contemporaneity, relocating the drama to his Santa Monica home – and diaphanous black and white.
Nominally a comedy and double love story involving a second couple (Denisof and Acker as Benedick and Beatrice), Whedon sets much of his Ado in sunlit kitchens and airy salons where shadows and pools of brilliant light reflect the to and fro of fulsome banter and looming domesticity. It’s the thorny question of love’s existence within a socio-political collective that requires delicate handling. To stage the pit of societal shame into which Leonato and his daughter very nearly fall, Whedon goes outside to the sunless shadiness of an overcast garden, a realm of murky indistinctiveness where groom, father, and Don Pedro (the father figure of political authority) are fooled into the betrayal of innocence.
Thus framed, their behaviour also takes on murkier and more sinister overtones of patriarchal misogyny. This is not only a father failing his daughter but society failing women, and it’s no coincidence that the conflict is resolved with the help of the officiating priest – a man who stands above sex and ambition. If Shakespeare reveals himself here as a humane absurdist, Whedon shows himself fully capable of identifying both humanity and absurdity and transferring it, beyond all disbelief, to a modern setting.
Whedon’s Shakespeare is ingeniously new and enduringly relevant.
Much Ado About Nothing | Directed by Joss Whedon (USA 2012) with Alexis Denisof, Amy Acker, Clark Gregg, Jillian Morgese. Starts July 24
Originally published in issue #129, July/August 2014