Who are your favourite Shakespearean lovers? There’s a strong list of contenders. Romeo and Juliet, of course, are immensely vulnerable and poignant. Antony and Cleopatra are clever, capricious and passionate. Then there is the lovely wit of Rosalind and Orlando from As You Like It, the sweet, silly antics of the lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the quiet yearning of Viola in Twelfth Night or the droll wooing of Katherine by Henry in Henry V.
For me, though, it has to be the reluctant couple Benedick and Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing. There’s something about seeing these spiky, sarcastic individuals tricked into realising how much they love each other that is immensely touching. The more they fight their feelings, the more you want them to be together.
They’re sharp-witted, sharp-tongued and evenly matched: a combination that has made them beloved of audiences since they first took to the stage in the late 16th century (in 1640 the poet Leonard Digges commented on their positive effect on the box office) and popular with celebrated actors, John Gielgud and Peggy Ashcroft, Robert Stephens and Maggie Smith, Donald Sinden and Judi Dench among them.
Jeremy Herrin, who is currently directing Much Ado for Shakespeare’s Globe, points out that their parity makes the play particularly attractive for a 21st-century audience. “Much Ado is the original rom-com isn’t it? Beatrice and Benedick are just incredibly contemporary.”
Indeed, there has been an invasion of Beatrices and Benedicks in Britain this spring. Funk It Up About Nothin’, a hip-hop version of the play, has just played at the Theatre Royal in east London, while the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra mounts an evening of music and theatre inspired by Much Ado in Glasgow later this month. In London, two new, attractively cast productions are about to open. At the Globe, Eve Best and Charles Edwards square up to one another. Meanwhile, at Wyndham’s, one of the hottest tickets of the summer comes at the hands of David Tennant and Catherine Tate, last seen sparring together in the BBC TV series Doctor Who. “Their chemistry is incredible,” says Josie Rourke, who is directing Tennant and Tate.
One of the pleasures of the play is that the parts can be played by experienced actors, who can convey the transformative power of unexpected love later in life. Anyone who saw Simon Russell Beale (50 this year) as Benedick in the National Theatre’s recent production will recall his touching astonishment, when, having hidden in a pool, he emerged soaking wet to exclaim, “Love me! Why?”
“There is the capacity for us all to identify with them,” says Rourke. “Most of us who get to a certain age have met someone who we spark with, who makes us feel we are a sharper version of selves. And many of us have experienced those moments at which relationships like that have gone wrong. Most of us know what it is to nurse a hurt, to carry something unrequited ... I think the whole thing has to have a degree of jeopardy.”
Herrin agrees: “That’s an important part of the play,” he says. “I’ve read that academics would classify light or dark productions. But I think it’s impossible to separate them really. There’s always got to be something at stake for comedy to make any difference at all.”
There is plenty of knockabout comedy but Much Ado also has a dark undertow. Benedick and Beatrice’s journey towards love contrasts with that of younger lovers Claudio and Hero, whose plans to marry are thwarted by a malicious trick, prompting Claudio to jilt Hero cruelly at the altar.
“The tragic swerve the play takes is considerable,” says Rourke. “What they do to [Hero] is awful. But I hope a good production will also show you the world that those decisions came out of. We want to find how that moment of tragedy and misunderstanding comes out of the energy of the partying that takes place beforehand.”
Rourke’s production is set in 1980s Gibraltar. Because of Gibraltar’s role as a military base, she says, this allows the company to suggest a close, tightly knit community. The period evokes the lavish 1981 royal wedding of Charles and Diana, underpinning the play’s examination of the appeal of fairytale romance and of what constitutes real, lasting love.
Herrin’s Globe staging is more traditional, set in the 16th century, largely, he explains, because “there’s no point in being at war with the space”. Paradoxically, however, this setting highlights Beatrice’s modernity. “Beatrice is a proto-feminist character,” he says. “And you’ve got a really great comparison in the play between Beatrice and Hero, who’s demure and obedient and who expresses herself articulately and beautifully with the women but who is more or less silent otherwise. Which I think is theatrically very powerful.”
Herrin’s observation highlights the importance of talk, of self-expression and verbal exchange, in the play. Beatrice and Benedick’s banter is a performance but one that excites both of them and confirms how well they are matched. It was this aspect of the play that prompted the Q Brothers, two brothers from Chicago who perform as GQ and JQ, to create Funk It Up About Nothin’, a high-velocity version that styles Beatrice and Benedick as fast-talking rappers, backed up by music and driving beats from an on-stage DJ.
“There’s a natural swagger to hip-hop,” explains JQ. “And that really suits those two characters. That battling, cocky element to hip-hop plays so nicely when they’re sparring back and forth.”
GQ adds that although Shakespeare and hip-hop may seem antipathetic, in fact they work very well together. Indeed the brothers, who developed the show with the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, plan to do “ad-rap-tations” of the whole canon.
“They’re made for each other,” says GQ. “When you talk about musicality of language and poetic device, there’s nothing closer to Shakespeare than hip-hop. The way he elevated everyday language into an art form: he didn’t write how people talked, he wrote how people talked in that reality. It’s the same with hip-hop. People joke about it, but I’m being completely serious when I say that if he were alive, he would be a rapper.”
Some may demur at his suggestion but certainly Much Ado worked remarkably well in this 21st-century idiom. But then this play delights in finding unexpected affinities and inverting the norm: in seeing love in insults, in making secondary characters the lead and in finding truth through deception. It’s this unexpected route to wisdom that makes the play so humane and the lovers so lovable, says Rourke: “Through the trick that’s played on them, they acquire the courage to declare their love and through the tragedy of the play they acquire the self-knowledge to commit to it. And that’s what’s beautiful about the action of the play.”