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Much Ado About Nothing On Screen

Film and TV adaptations of Shakespeare's sunny Italian comedy

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One of Shakespeare's most popular plays, Much Ado About Nothing seems to have been first performed in the 1598-99 season and was published shortly afterwards in a quarto edition. Sourced partly from Ariosto's Orlando furioso (1516), though largely original, the stormy relationship between Beatrice and Benedick has long been the model for similar warring couples over the subsequent centuries. Although widely seen as a sunny, lighthearted play, it's often surprisingly dark, not least in its use of a key subplot involving malicious deception on more than one level.

Curiously, despite its stage popularity, Much Ado has rarely been filmed by British companies. The BBC showed scenes from the play in 1937, in a production supervised by George More O'Ferrall and starring Henry Oscar (Benedick) and Margaretta Scott (Beatrice), and a National Theatre production was preserved on tape in the studio and transmitted on 5 February 1967, starring real-life married couple Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens as Beatrice and Benedick, alongside Derek Jacobi (Don Pedro), Ronald Pickup (Don Juan), Frank Finlay (Dogberry), together with future stars Michael Gambon and Christopher Timothy in minor roles.

The play was filmed for television in 1978 by Donald McWhinnie in a production starring Michael York (Benedick) and Penelope Keith (Beatrice). Originally intended to be broadcast in the first series of the BBC Television Shakespeare, in the event it was never screened, and a new production was substituted towards the end of the cycle on 30 November 1984. Directed by Shakespeare veteran Stuart Burge and starring Robert Lindsay (Benedick), Cherie Lunghi (Beatrice), Jon Finch (Don Pedro), Michael Elphick (Dogberry) and Clive Dunn (Verges), it was a visually attractive, textually faithful but ultimately rather sombre production. An accompanying 25-minute Shakespeare in Perspective documentary was presented by the actress Eleanor Bron and broadcast nearly a month later on 22 December 1984.

Although the play had been filmed twice for the big screen in East Germany (d. Martin Hellberg, 1964) and the Soviet Union (d. Samson Samsonov, 1973), it wasn't until 1993 that a British equivalent emerged. Kenneth Branagh's US co-production, his second big-screen Shakespeare film after Henry V (1989), took numerous liberties with both text and casting (Branagh's Benedick, Emma Thompson's Beatrice and Richard Briers' Leonato opposite Keanu Reeves' Don John, Robert Sean Leonard's Claudio and Michael Keaton's Dogberry), but was a runaway smash hit (by Shakespeare standards), grossing over $22 million in the United States alone and paving the way for similar crossover successes such as Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet (US, 1996).

Michael Brooke

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